The resignation of Mr. Jiang Zemin as chairman of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC), the country’s top military post, completes the transfer of power from Mr. Jiang to his successor, Mr. Hu Jintao. The handover is a landmark in modern Chinese politics, but its political impact is unclear. Mr. Jiang’s resignation is unlikely to herald any major shift in policy in Beijing. Nevertheless, China’s new generation of leaders have fully grasped the reins of power and the very nature of that transition holds out hope for the future.
Mr. Hu was designated China’s leader in waiting by former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. He took the helm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2002 and assumed the presidency of China a year later. Control of the third and final lever of power, that of the CMC, remained in the hands of Mr. Jiang, however, prompting speculation that the former leader wanted to retain influence over decision-making. Others countered that Mr. Jiang had credibility with the military that Mr. Hu did not, and holding on to the CMC chair was designed to ease the transition to the new leadership. In fact, Mr. Hu had been vice chairman of the CMC for five years and had overseen several difficult and potentially contentious projects.
Mr. Jiang surrendered the final position last weekend at the CCP’s Central Committee’s annual meeting. Some attributed the handover to ill health on Mr. Jiang’s part; his term was scheduled to run until 2007. The former president has reportedly come under pressure to step down to complete the transition to the fourth generation.
Given the lack of transparency in Chinese politics, it is hard to assess the truth of that last hypothesis. It is clear, however, that Mr. Jiang’s continuing presence encouraged speculation about divisions within the CCP leadership and power struggles. Internal debates on issues ranging from Taiwan to domestic political priorities have reportedly been whipsawed between the two factions. That there has been little real shift in Chinese policies has not deterred the breathless hypothesizing.
The truth is there has been far more continuity than change in Chinese policy since the arrival of the fourth generation and with good reason. Chinese national objectives remain the same. Domestic economic development is the key to the CCP’s political legitimacy and China’s re-emergence as a regional and global power. Critical to the realization of that growth is a peaceful and stable international environment. That was and will continue to be the guiding principle of Beijing’s foreign and domestic policies, whether implemented by Mr. Jiang, Mr. Hu or any of the other leaders of this younger generation.
While Mr. Hu is considered to be something of a cipher, it is clear that he believes in the party and that he will endeavor to maintain CCP rule. Any differences with his predecessors reflect differences in the best way to maintain that leading role. He has demonstrated a readiness to hold party leaders accountable for their mistakes, as was evident in his handling of the SARS crisis in the spring of 2003. Similarly, he has shown greater concern for Chinese left behind during the country’s economic boom. He is no closet liberal, however. There have already been media crackdowns during his tenure and in a recent speech he dismissed calls for Western-style democracy in China.
The consolidation of power in Mr. Hu’s hands will end the fruitless speculation about what he really intends to do and focus attention on what he says and does. In the near future, there is little likelihood of big shifts. There is little chance of a shift in relations with Japan. The real issues in our bilateral relationship transcend any individual. Instead they reflect our tangled history and our mutually dependent economic relationship.
China will continue to seek accommodation with the United States, which as the world’s leading power must be dealt with. It will continue to push for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis because China needs stability in Northeast Asia and it worries about the reaction of other countries if Pyongyang acquires nuclear weapons. Beijing will continue to watch developments in Taiwan, waiting to see the outcome of legislative elections in December before making any policy adjustments. Beijing will continue to reassure its neighbors that its “rise” is an opportunity rather a threat, and that China will be a mature and responsible power.
The peaceful handover of power to the next generation of leaders will help Mr. Hu make that case. This is the first time in modern Chinese history that a political transition has gone smoothly and as planned. That alone is reason to have hope for China and its future.
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