Now that the Chinese Communist Party has completed a smooth leadership transition, the world is watching how Mr. Hu Jintao, the new party chief, will navigate his one-party socialist state of 1.3 billion people through the treacherous waters of globalization. Predicting his future course is complicated by the fact that, for all the media hoopla about the 59-year-old technocrat, little is known about his political skills and beliefs.
The champion of the fourth generation of Chinese rulers since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Mr. Hu succeeded Mr. Jiang Zemin as general secretary last Friday at a plenary session of the CCP Central Committee following the 16th Party Congress. Now vice president of the state, Mr. Hu is expected to become president, also succeeding Mr. Jiang, at the National People’s Congress next March.
One problem facing Mr. Hu is that his power base in the party remains relatively weak. Mr. Jiang, though officially in retirement, has retained his title as chairman of the Central Military Commission. Moreover, Mr. Jiang has placed his allies in the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo, thus effectively ensuring that he will play the role of eminence grise. So it is likely that, at least for the time being, Mr. Hu will be obliged to follow the course set by his predecessor.
As the head of the CCP, Mr. Hu is expected by vested-interest groups both inside and outside the party to maintain its one-party dictatorship. To that end, the party congress has made two major decisions. One is the inclusion of capitalist ideology in the party constitution — namely, the “three represents” doctrine that recognizes private entrepreneurs, along with workers and farmers, as party members. This theory, originally advanced by Mr. Jiang, is designed to develop the CCP into a “national party” representing broad segments of Chinese society and thereby secure “harmony” between what Beijing calls the “socialist market economy” and its one-party authoritarian regime.
What is emerging, according to an analysis by the Chinese author of a banned best seller (describing problems in contemporary China), is a new alliance of ruling forces consisting of the traditional political elite and the up-and-coming entrepreneurial class. In a way, it is similar to the “nomenklatura,” the group of elite technocrats who governed the Soviet Union under President Leonid Brezhnev.
In another key decision, the CCP has reaffirmed its policy of high economic growth, a policy that had taken root during the 13 years of Mr. Jiang’s reign. In the words of a Russian scholar who experienced firsthand the collapse of the Soviet Communist Party, “Rapid economic expansion is the only assurance of survival for the Chinese Communist Party.” China’s fast-growing economy, he says, is the glue that binds the political and business elites, and the majority of the Chinese people will continue to support the CCP as long as the economic pie keeps expanding.
An action report adopted by the party conclave calls for a quadrupling of the gross domestic product by 2020 — a level of national economic output at which Chinese society as a whole is predicted to achieve a “fair measure of leisure.” The Beijing think tank that provided an analytical basis for the report estimates that China’s GDP will overtake Japan’s around 2030 and equal America’s by the middle of this century.
To achieve sustainable growth, however, China must effectively address a formidable array of problems, such as environmental deterioration, depletion of energy resources, rampant corruption and an exploding population. To combat these and other problems Mr. Hu will have to introduce his own reform programs, including democratic changes to the political system. For that, he must bolster and stabilize his power base as soon as possible. The question is how he will manage the expanded Standing Committee, the majority of whose nine members are Mr. Jiang’s allies. Particularly, Mr. Zeng Qinghong, Mr. Jiang’s right-hand man, is seen as Mr. Hu’s chief rival.
Mr. Hu will also have to address the mounting complaints by those who are finding themselves to be “losers” in the economic game: millions of small farmers and workers of troubled state-owned enterprises. Failure to meet their grievances, along with the widening gap between rich and poor, is a recipe for heightened social instability.
The fundamental challenge for China’s new ruler is to consolidate his power by co-opting “middle roaders” in the leadership while dealing flexibly with the changing situation at home and abroad. As No. 2 under Mr. Jiang, Mr. Hu built his career as a talented yet cautious insider. Now that he has reached the pinnacle of power, he must change himself and his country, both in spirit and substance.
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