CAMBRIDGE, England — Bits of the jigsaw are beginning to fall into place. Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao, the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s preferred candidate to take over from President Jiang Zemin, is beginning to show the confidence that suggests his position as the new party secretary general is secure. This was almost certainly negotiated at the party leaders’ traditional summer retreat at the seaside resort of Beidaihe last month.

It is also beginning to become a bit clearer what Jiang demanded as his price for reining in his supporters who were pressing for him to be allowed to continue in office. The date of the party congress has been put back to the unusually late date of Nov. 8. This means that Jiang can go to the United States at the end of October as head of state as well as party leader. He enjoys the limelight of state visits and was keen to go out on the crest of a state visit to the U.S., including a weekend at U.S. President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch.

The party leaders at Beidaihe also agreed that Jiang’s mantra, The Three Represents, would be written into the party constitution. This was perhaps even more important to Jiang than the state visit to the U.S. as it gives him a sense that he is up there in the Communist Party of China pantheon along with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

Putting The Three Represents into the party constitution seems an innocuous enough. Who could argue with the claims that the CPC should represent the forces of advanced modern production techniques, advanced culture and the overwhelming majority of the people?

Although they sound innocuous enough, the Three Represents are, in fact, quite revolutionary, or two are and one is counterrevolutionary. The first is the recognition that the CPC now depends on the private sector to secure its continuation in power. It recognizes that today only the private sector has the capacity to provide the growth and the jobs that will prevent major popular disaffection with the country’s leaders.

The third of the Three Represents draws on the first and implies that the party must welcome into the fold of its Central Committee, and other ranks, the leaders of the private sector on which it is now dependent for survival. This was also agreed at the Beidaihe meeting, another victory for Jiang.

The second of the Three Represent, the argument that the party should represent advanced culture is the counterrevolutionary one. This argues that the rule for law is not enough and that the rule of virtue should also prevail. This is code for a claim that China should return to Confucian cultural values, values that the CPC has spent the last 80 years denigrating.

Confucianism, remember, is based on “five cardinal relationships.” These are those between older and younger friends, elder and younger brother, husband and wife, father and son and (no surprise) ruler and subject. The five relationships define a hierarchical social and political structure in which everyone knows, and accepts, their place in society. This includes private-sector entrepreneurs.

The ruler in the Three Represents scenario is, of course, the CPC, with its own Confucian-style hierarchy.

So far so good. But Confucianism also places a low regard on profit and private possession as compared against communalism. This is a bit of a problem for the other two Represents. Quite counterrevolutionary in fact.

Why did the party leaders agree to rewrite the CPC’s constitution to include the Three Represents? Was it just a trick to get Jiang and his cronies to go quietly and let the Fourth Generation of leaders take over? Or is it last desperate attempt of a party that has lost its legitimacy and is grasping at straws to hold onto power?

If it was just a party bag for Jiang to go home with, then fine. Who cares what is in a party constitution anyway? It is the way that it uses power that matters. If it is the dying breath of communism, then I could get worried. Collusion between the leaders of the private sector and the party, with their own army, the Peoples’ Liberation Army, available to suppress political dissidence and workers rights? Think military-industrial complex without the (admittedly limited but real) powers of control of democracy and the rule of law.

I was arguing along these lines at a dinner party with Chinese diplomats a short while ago. One or two of them got quite upset, saying that I did not understand the real meaning of the texts of Jiang’s two major pronouncements on the Three Represents. The first was his July 1 speech last year on the occasion of the 80th birthday party of the CPC. The second was the graduation day speech he gave at the Central Party School on May 31 this year, only excerpts of which have been published.

The Chinese diplomats argued that I was trapped in a Western mind-set, with all of the associated prejudices, and therefore unable to understand the importance and forward-looking nature of the new doctrine. It was cynical of me, they said, to suggest that it was just an attempt by the CPC to stay in power at any price.

I was not surprised by that reaction. I don’t usually get into arguments over party doctrine with members of any party, just as I do not debate with any religious people the true meaning and significance of their biblical texts. But I was surprised by one young man who, in a quiet moment said, “Does it matter?

What he meant was that the real balance of power in China has shifted over the last decade. China now has a real middle class, in the private sector and also in the government and the professions. Their limits of tolerance place serious constraints on what is politically acceptable in China today. According to this theory there are more limits on the freedom of action of Chinese leaders than there are on the president of the United States. The playing around of the party leaders with the party constitution and arguing over whose turn it is to be party secretary and China’s president are just a sign that they have lost the plot. At least this is what I think he meant. I hope so.

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