China is set to have a new generation of younger leaders. The Chinese Communist Party will announce a sweeping reshuffle at a plenary session of the Central Committee following the 16th Party Congress, which opened Friday for a weeklong session. The National People’s Congress next spring will also choose new state and government leaders. If power shifts smoothly, it will be a good omen not only for China, but also for the rest of the world.

The current leadership under Mr. Jiang Zemin, the party secretary and president, forms the third generation following the first and second generations headed, respectively, by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The fourth generation is expected to be led by Mr. Hu Jintao, who is widely seen as Mr. Jiang’s successor. A generational change will also take place at the Politburo’s policymaking Standing Committee.

The quinquennial party congress, the first of this century, comes at a time of China’s growing presence in a globalized economy. The fact remains, however, that the world’s most populous nation of 1.3 billion people is still under the thumb of a one-party dictatorship. That is why an open and orderly leadership change is particularly important. The People’s Republic of China has not seen a smooth succession process since it was established in 1949.

Indeed, cloak-and-dagger political strife has been a salient feature of modern China. The Chinese Communist Party, founded by Mao in 1921, has a history of recurring power struggles via coups. Mao, in particular, practiced ruthless methods in pursuit of his revolutionary visions. In 1959 he picked Liu Shaoqi, a party pragmatist, as his successor, but during the Great Cultural Revolution launched in 1966, Mao discarded Liu as a “revisionist” and sent him into political limbo.

Lin Biao also fell victim to a fierce power struggle, which eventually cost him his life. As the military increased its influence while trying to restore order in the provinces, the marshal became Mao’s second-in-command. But following an abortive coup in 1971, Lin fled the country and died in a plane crash over Mongolia en route to the Soviet Union.

In 1976, shortly before his death, Mao named Hua Guofeng as his de facto heir apparent, but the decision was also pregnant with turmoil. Hua was brutally ousted after Mao’s departure, which set the stage for the dramatic comeback of Deng Xiaoping, who had been consigned to political oblivion during the Cultural Revolution. Deng consolidated his power by banishing the Gang of Four led by Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing.

Deng, a consummate realist, was perhaps well aware of the pitfalls of a backroom succession when he refused to take all major posts except the chairmanship of the Central Military Committee. But the catch-all portrayal of him as the “paramount leader” served, if anything, to camouflage the real problem of leadership change: its very secretiveness. The problem remained hidden behind the facade of “reform and openness.”

Initially, Deng handpicked the reformer Hu Yaobang as his successor, but dismissed him in 1987 for his inept handling of prodemocracy student movements. Zhao Ziyang, who replaced Hu, was also ousted following the 1989 Tiananmen Incident in which troops killed many demonstrators. Mr. Jiang Zemin, who succeeded Zhao as party secretary, was Deng’s third choice.

If the coming succession process goes smoothly according to the rules of the party congress, then the CCP will have made a big step forward toward transparency. As things stand, however, it is largely a matter of conjecture how power will change hands in the party’s inner sanctum. Speculation is rife, for example, over whether Mr. Jiang will relinquish his title as chairman of the Central Military Committee.

Transparency in a leadership election is a barometer of the degree to which a nation’s political system is democratized. China, of course, remains a one-party communist state, but direct elections in rural areas, for example, indicate that the CCP is moving toward openness at local levels. By contrast, its central hierarchy in Beijing remains wrapped largely in secrecy, contributing to a persistent sense of suspicion in much of the international community.

The current party congress is expected to rewrite some of its rules to admit business entrepreneurs as cardholding party members. Capitalists, along with workers and peasants, are now considered a pillar of Mr. Jiang’s doctrine of the “three represents.” That is a welcome move that should enable China to better meet the challenges of globalization. The future of the CCP now hinges on whether it can cast off its revolutionary trappings and develop itself into an open party representing the broad interests of the Chinese people.

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