China's Jiang steps down but not out of power

He hands over presidency to Hu but will retain much of his influence

March 16, 2003|By Michael A. Lev | Michael A. Lev,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BEIJING - China named a new president yesterday in an election that was richer in symbolism than political significance.

The new president is Hu Jintao, 60, who already has the more powerful position of leader of the Communist Party. But that does not automatically mean Hu is the most powerful man in China. That probably remains Jiang Zemin, even after handing over the presidency to Hu yesterday and the party chief's position to him in November.

Jiang, 76, retains another important job as head of the commission that runs the military, but titles don't necessarily mean much in China. It is who has the authority.

For the moment, Jiang appears to remain the most important man in the country. He retains control of the military and has not stepped back from running China's foreign policy even after giving up the party chief post.

Moreover, there is a tradition in China of political emperors ruling from behind the throne. Mao Tse-tung's successor, Deng Xiaoping, led China as paramount leader for years after retiring from his official positions.

Because China is an authoritarian one-party state that does not need to explain its machinations to the public, there has been no clear explanation for how the transition process is being managed.

From appearances, the country is completing a momentous succession in which a new generation of leaders, led by Hu, is taking control. It represents the first time China has seen a change in power without bloodshed or purges and suggests that the government is developing into a steadier, more professional institution. This fits well with the trend toward a free-market, trade-based economy that must develop a base of predictable rules to run smoothly.

Under this scenario, Jiang is likely to move slowly but steadily to the sidelines as Hu solidifies control and gains experience.

But there is no precedent for this kind of smooth transition. There is instead a history in China of some potential leaders failing to make their mark and being pushed aside.

One of the clearest signs of a Chinese leader's staying power is whether he is surrounded by supporters. While Jiang has left his Communist Party position, he has left behind a stacked deck of proteges at the highest echelon of the party. They are also present at the top level of government. For example, his confidant Zeng Qinghong was named vice president yesterday.

China's official Xinhua news agency came closest yesterday to spelling out the details of Jiang's continuing role. It said that Jiang had offered to "make way for younger people to accelerate the pace of generational transition" but that the party decided not to accept his proposal. Xinhua said Jiang was invited to stay on as head of the party's Central Military Commission "in view of the complex and changing international situation and the arduous tasks for the building of China's national defense."

This suggests that Jiang will retain much of his influence as a senior statesman, most likely continuing to manage China's foreign policy as he has done during the Iraq crisis, in which he has been China's point man in discussions with President Bush and European leaders.

But this has not been spelled out. Instead, the focus of events yesterday was Hu's ceremonial election during China's annual meeting of the National People's Congress, a rubber-stamp assembly that answers to the party. There was no suspense in the election of Hu, who had been ordained since the days of Deng as the man who would succeed Jiang.

The same was true this morning in the official appointment of Wen Jiabao to succeed Zhu Rongji as premier and economic czar. Wen, 60, was another figure who rose to the top of the party during its five-year congress in November.

There is no way to predict whether the new generation harbors different views about how China should develop, but the working assumption is that the country will not veer from its course of liberalizing the economy while protecting the party's iron-clad political control.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. Michael A. Lev is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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