HONG KONG — Chinese President Jiang Zemin, far from stepping down as a result of giving up his post as the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, appears to have bolstered his position vis-a-vis his successor as party leader, Hu Jintao.

Jiang is expected to give up his position as head of state to Hu in March, during the annual session of the National People’s Congress. Even then, however, he, rather than Hu, is likely to be considered China’s paramount leader. This is because, even though Hu is now nominally the party leader, Jiang has been elevated within the party by having his name written into the party constitution.

For the last 13 years, Jiang has been known as the “core” of the third generation of party leaders. At the same time, it was said that Chairman Mao Zedong was the “core” of the first generation of Chinese communists and that Deng Xiaoping, while he was still alive, was the “core” of a second generation.

The idea of a “core” does not elevate the person above other members of his generation, but suggests that he is first among equals. It seemed logical for there to be a “core” of the third generation, just as there would be a “core” for the fourth, fifth and other future generations.

Now, the new party constitution adopted at the 16th Congress has introduced another concept other than that of the “core” of a generation. This is the concept of “chief representative.”

The constitution’s general program calls Mao the first chief representative of the party, implying that he held this status from the founding of the party in 1921 until his death in 1976. Then, it says, “after the third plenary session of the 11th party central committee” in 1978, Deng became the party’s chief representative. Apparently Deng held this status only until 1989, when Jiang became the party’s general secretary because, according to the constitution, from 1989 on, Jiang was the party’s chief representative.

This means that Deng served as the chief representative for only 11 years, while Jiang has been chief representative already for 13 years. Significantly, while Mao was chief representative until he died, Deng lost his status in 1989, eight years before his death.

The constitution is silent on whether Jiang will lose his position of chief representative to Hu or, like Mao, will keep this status for the rest of his life. Since the constitution was adopted at the same congress that saw the elevation of Hu, the implication is that Jiang will continue to be the chief representative of the party, even though he has given up the post of party chief.

It appears clear that Hu, though he is now the party’s nominal leader, is not its chief representative. In fact, the routine formulation now is the phrase “the party central committee with Hu as general secretary.” That is to say, Hu is only called general secretary, not the chief representative or even the “core” of the fourth generation of party leaders.

General secretaries can come and go, but this doesn’t happen to either the “core” or the chief representative. In fact, two of the last three general secretaries did not even serve out their full term. Jiang’s predecessor, Zhao Ziyang, was removed from his post because of his sympathies for the students during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in June 1989. And Zhao’s predecessor, Hu Yaobang, was removed in 1987 because he, too, was not considered to have been tough enough on student demonstrators the previous year.

Armed with this unprecedented title of the party’s chief representative,” Jiang is in an extremely strong position. Certainly, the “chief representative” would appear to be a more important person than the general secretary, who can be relegated to being little more than a party functionary who carries out administrative duties.

Actually, it is extremely dangerous for the party to elevate a living person to such a height. Imagine what would happen if, tomorrow, Jiang were to give a public speech in which he announced that communism was bad for China. Granted, this is an unlikely eventuality, but it is theoretically possible. Jiang has been put in the position of being able, in effect, to destroy the Communist Party if he wishes.

Meanwhile, the terminology of “third generation” and “fourth generation” seems to be little used these days. After all, if there is a “chief representative,” his role does not have to limited to one generation of communists. The concept is flexible, since one can argue that Mao was the “chief representative” for more than half a century.

Jiang’s tenure of “chief representative” seems limited only by his mortality.

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