Hu's in charge?

International | SPECIAL REPORT: A new generation of Chinese Communists has raised Western hopes for reform, but the transition of power is more likely meant to guarantee continued party dominance

Issue: "As the West burns," Sept. 6, 2003

WHEN HU JINTAO BECAME THE secretary-general of the Communist Party of China (CPC) last year, he and the other eight new standing members of the CPC Central Committee Politburo lined up like beauty-pageant contestants. And there was plenty to marvel about as the world got its first glimpse at the youthful faces now leading what used to be a gerontocracy. But who (or Hu) is in charge and what does the CPC's younger complexion mean? Mr. Hu, 60, subsequently became the president of China in March 2003, and the other eight Politburo members took over China's other top government positions. At the same time, a new generation of CPC officials also moved into key positions in China's central and local government. Now 100 days into Mr. Hu's presidency, many are still wondering if he is really in charge and what difference a new cadre of leaders will make for the largest authoritarian government in the world. Jiang Zemin, Mr. Hu's predecessor, retired from the presidency and dropped party titles, yet he retains control of the guns. As chairman of the Central Military Commission, Mr. Jiang would be the one to press the nuclear button. Despite Mr. Hu's lead roles in the party structure, he is military deputy under Mr. Jiang. This awkward arrangement has led to much speculation about a behind-the-scenes struggle between Mr. Hu and Mr. Jiang. Beijing observers tend to see Mr. Jiang as the reactionary force in this "fight" and hope Mr. Hu is a progressive who will make dramatic political change in China, even correcting the crackdown on dissent that began more than a decade ago with the Tiananmen Square massacre. But by all accounts, the Hu leadership and its strategic outlook are a continuation of the ones set by his predecessors, Deng Xiaoping and Mr. Jiang. All were committed to developing China under firm CPC control. So Mr. Jiang and Mr. Hu have put forward a new doctrine for the CPC called the "Three Representatives: advance productive forces, advance culture, and advance the fundamental interests of the majority of Chinese people." The third component of the new doctrine is especially significant: The CPC must always represent the majority of the Chinese people, not party leadership only. But the CPC is not embracing Western-style democracy. Looking at what Mr. Hu and his administration have done in the first 100 days (see sidebar), we get a sense that political transition and change are still consistent with the party line. Speculation of a behind-the-scenes struggle between Mr. Jiang and Mr. Hu in that light is overblown. More likely, the two leaders are in concert to make deliberate changes but secure a smooth transition of power, a transition meant to guarantee the continued dominance of the Communist Party. Mr. Hu and China's new leaders represent the so-called fourth-generation leaders of PRC. Nearly all were trained as engineers. This is no accident. Party founders of Mao Zedong's generation were revolutionaries with limited education. Only a few studied in Europe, such as Premier Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping (Mao's successor). Most were simply peasants, workers, soldiers, and "half-baked" intellectuals who joined the rank and file through the revolution. With Jiang Zemin's generation came training in the Soviet Union, where the government sent the most promising youths to study in the 1950s. Most specialized in hard sciences and engineering, since Marxism's "eternal truth" eliminated the need for political, social, and economic inquiries. They returned to become the main force in China's construction and economic development. Mr. Hu's generation is homegrown, with only a few senior leaders having studied abroad. China's successful economic reform in the last two decades puts a positive spin on the repressive measures that forced many Chinese into the study of hard sciences and engineering. The party banned higher education during the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Graduates of the first three classes following (1977-1979) are now junior members of the Hu generation. In 10 years, the postCultural Revolution graduates will become the main force in China's leadership. They will include returning U.S.- and Western-educated Chinese students. Most will be students of science and technology because the CPC does not want those who study political and social sciences overseas to return to China. During Mr. Jiang's reign, officials with an engineering background occupied over 80 percent of the key positions. Mr. Hu's generation is likely to continue this trend. That leaves a vacuum of equally talented figures in the Chinese leadership who know how to construct a sound political system. At the same time, the CPC lacks any transparent method for ruler change. Last year's 16th Party Congress marked the first time in 80 years a party chief stepped down voluntarily while he was still politically powerful and-at age 76-physically capable. Mr. Jiang was reportedly proud to be the first to do so. It was a deliberate attempt to institutionalize rulership change in the CPC, a small step in the right direction but by no means a turnaround from one-party rule. -Prior to the Tiananmen massacre, David Lai was a diplomat in the Chinese Foreign Service; now a U.S. citizen, he teaches in the Department of Strategy and International Security Studies at the U.S. Air War College

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