HAINAN, China — The 3,000-plus delegates to the annual two-week meeting of China’s National People’s Congress, or NPC, have packed their bags and gone home. It was an unusually important meeting this year. In addition to the usual rubber-stamping of the Chinese Communist Party’s policy proposals for the coming year, it was also the occasion for the announcement of the new government leaders.
There were no surprises in the new leadership lineup. These were widely trailed after the relevant decisions were made during the horse-trading at the annual seaside summerfest for party leaders last summer.
It will be some time before the new leadership shakes down. Many lower level government positions have been reorganized and new cadres have to be identified and appointed to fill them. The policy statements of the leaders announced at the NPC meeting must be digested and turned into work programs. Decisions also have to be taken on which parts of the programs will be carried out and which ignored.
The Western media has commented on the fact that this has been the first quiet transfer of power in communist China. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that it didn’t happen. As chairman of the Military Commission, 77-year-old former President Jiang Zemin still calls the shots, despite the CCP having decided long ago on a retirement age of 70 for top leaders.
Jiang has stuffed the leading party organs with his henchmen and bagmen. His successor, President Hu Jintao, is surrounded. He will have to fight even to find room to breathe. Jiang’s placemen have a majority on the party’s executive, the Politburo of the Central Committee. The State Council, China’s Cabinet, has many of Jiang’s men in key positions including the widely disliked vice presidency.
This is sad, but expected. Corrupt third-generation leaders and their cronies and families need to maintain power to safeguard their ill-gotten gains and ensure future benefits. To do this, they had to corrupt and recruit members of the fourth generation and place them in positions of power.
It is also sad because it looks as though we underestimated Hu and his premier, Wen Jiabao. When it became clear last year that Hu’s position as the leader of the fourth generation was secure and that he would become general secretary of the CCP, the only hard information that the Western media could find on him was that he had been governor of Tibet at the time of the bloody suppression of the Tibetan independence movement. They mostly missed the fact that he suffers from altitude sickness and rarely went there.
During his tour of the world last year to introduce himself to Western leaders, I was present at a dinner he spoke to in London. He came across as an open, mild-mannered man, without the paranoia and hangups of Jiang. And since Hu was appointed general secretary of the CCP last November, he has confirmed this impression by carrying out a low-profile public-relations exercise to sell himself as a man of the people. He has traveled extensively around the poorer parts of China and gone out of his way to meet and mix with ordinary people — not something Jiang did much.
In all of his set-piece speeches, Hu has stressed the need for China to address the problems of the poor, especially those in rural areas who, in addition to low incomes, have no access to free health or education; i.e., most Chinese citizens. He says he wants to take the focus of policy away from the creation of more wealth in the coastal cities and turn it on improving the conditions of the poor. He sounds almost like a socialist, which is odd in a country in which the word communist is now a synonym for “self-serving capitalist.”
In his first national speech as CCP leader, he surprised us all. In addition to exhorting, as usual, the people to work hard, study hard and stop being corrupt, he added that the Chinese people should be less preoccupied with sex. Can you imagine leaders like British Prime Minister Tony Blair, U.S. President George W. Bush or Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi telling their citizens to think less about sex? Well, maybe Bush.
Outgoing Premier Zhu Rongji also made an odd — from a Western political perspective — valedictory speech. In addition to listing what he saw his achievements, he also hung out an even longer list of his failures, including reform of the state-owned enterprises, agriculture, the banking system and the establishment of a social-security net. These are big problems, which Hu knows he will have to tackle and overcome if his dream of a socialist China with market characteristics is to be realized.
Will Jiang and his placemen, who showed little interest in tackling these problems until now, allow Hu and Wen to succeed where Zhu failed? We will have to wait and see. Hu has, however, put down a marker that he intends to try.
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