The Chinese Leadership Succession: Does It Complete or Continue? Jianhai Bi Provides a Perspective on the 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress and Its Ramifications

By Bi, Jianhai | New Zealand International Review, March-April 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Chinese Leadership Succession: Does It Complete or Continue? Jianhai Bi Provides a Perspective on the 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress and Its Ramifications


Bi, Jianhai, New Zealand International Review


A major change in China's leadership brought about at the conclusion of the 16th Party Congress in mid-November 2002 is the most significant political event in China for a decade. Compared with previous political transitions that had been tainted by purges, plots and bloodshed, it seems that the first orderly transition of power since the Communist revolution in 1949 has been completed in the main. The initial result of the leadership succession and the expected evolution of power have enormous implications for China and the world.

Sweeping changes to the membership of the Central Committee have left about half as new faces. Bigger changes have taken place in the exclusive Politburo and its Standing Committee. Six of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) for the last term did not retain their seats. Among them, Premier Zhu Rongji and Parliament chief Li Peng stepped down because of an age limitation. The PSC expanded to nine members, but Hu was the only top politician re-elected to the Party's ruling elite. Jiang Zemin, aged 76, stepped down as General Secretary of the Communist Party, and Hu Jintao, 59, took his place. It is expected that Jiang will resign his presidency in favour of his Vice President, Hu, in March 2003. These changes highlight the fact that the Party's central leadership has largely achieved a smooth transition from the old to the new.

Yet, the changing of the Beijing guard was not fully completed. Control has not yet been substantially handed over from the third to the fourth leadership generation. To retain his influence Jiang has shepherded his proteges onto the PSC and into other high posts. Of the nine new PSC members, six came from his camp. Hu is encircled by Jiang's men and appears unlikely to establish and exercise authority in the short term. Jiang emerges as the power behind the throne, whilst the role of the PSC and Hu seems nebulous. Although he gave up his two top jobs, Jiang still controls the levers of power. Therefore, Hu's position as the crown prince remains potentially unstable. He will have to defer to Jiang for the next few years while building up his own power base.

In particular, Jiang has kept his third post as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), as Deng did at the 13th Party Congress in 1987. This indicates that Jiang is reluctant to give up power. It is noteworthy that all generals over 70 left the CMC and were retired from the Politburo. This makes it harder to justify the elderly Jiang staying on as CMC chairman. Hu has only obtained the CMC first vice-chairmanship; unable to command the army, he is left with little say in military affairs. By continuing to hold such a solid base of power, Jiang still wields the sceptre. Hu is mainly in charge of domestic matters with Jiang still largely making the major policy decisions on defence, security and diplomacy. (1) As the highest military body of the Party and country, the CMC is necessary to the power base of any top Chinese leader. For Hu, the most important issue he faces is how to gain the military command to consolidate his position as successor.

Thus, a generational shift was made, but the reins of power have not shifted to a new generation of leaders. It is too early to conclude that China's communists have stepped into a new age. Because Jiang is in semi-retirement and Hu is not fully in position at the helm of state, the Chinese leadership is in a situation where the post-Jiang age and a potential Hu age co-exist.

Succession struggle?

According to some Western media, there has been a succession struggle between Hu and Zeng Qinghong. Hong Kong media and overseas Chinese publications further report that this struggle, which was intense and fierce, began ten years ago.

Deng designated Hu as Jiang's heir apparent during the 14th Party Congress in 1992. For the first time, a successor-designate was not handpicked by the person he would succeed--an arrangement that raised the danger that Jiang might not trust Hu.

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