Party Time in Beijing: Hu Jintao Takes over the Chinese Communist Party. but Who Is Really in Charge, and at What Cost?

Article excerpt

Byline: Melinda Liu

China last week had its first orderly transfer of power since 1949--perhaps a bit too orderly. Communist Party boss Jiang Zemin, still a sprightly 76, stepped aside in favor of a new party chief, 59-year-old Hu Jintao. Half of the Central Committee was replaced with younger faces (average age: 55.4). And the party Constitution was even revised to welcome into its ranks private entrepreneurs, once reviled as capitalist "exploiters." When members of the new Politburo Standing Committee finally appeared in a neat chorus line before hundreds of journalists, they were a picture of bland uniformity. Even their outfits matched: somber navy suits, white shirts, red power ties.

One among them, No. 5 in the lineup, beamed and waved at the media like a celebrity, as if the moment were his. And in some ways, it was. Zeng Qinghong has long served as Jiang's protege and hatchet man, and he had helped his boss engineer a quiet coup. Two thirds of the new Standing Committee's members are allies of the outgoing party boss. And Jiang himself managed to stay on as head of the Central Military Commission, further ensuring his continued clout. (He is due to step down from the largely ceremonial post of president in March.) A number of Jiang loyalists, moreover, were promoted despite being tainted by allegations of scandal and corruption. Hu Jintao, the colorless leader whose main attribute is that he is accepted by all party factions, won the most powerful post in the country--but it was far from clear that he was yet the most powerful person.

How did Jiang and Zeng pull it off? Patronage and protection may have had something to do with it. Succession in China these days isn't just a political contest; it's a tussle for economic turf. Jiang's maneuvering is a form of retirement planning, ensuring his own influence while also safeguarding his family's interests. (President Jiang's U.S.-educated son, Jiang Mianheng, has been dubbed China's "prince of information technology" because of his involvement in a number of Shanghai-based ventures, including one that briefly counted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld among its investors.) Many aging cadres also have relatives in key businesses; some have to be concerned about becoming targets of influence-peddling probes. …