Fourth generation

March 17, 2003

CHINA'S "FOURTH generation" of leaders slipped into power last week in a transition that seemed relatively quiet and seamless. When it comes to the largest nation on Earth, one of the world's fastest-growing economies and a land still trying to understand the rule of law, that can't be taken for granted.

The Chinese political system remains terribly repressive but, in fits and starts, Chinese society is becoming more open, dynamic and modern. Any leadership changes in that direction are in the world's and particularly America's interests.

China's leadership generations, dating from the 1949 birth of "new China," are tellingly known by their paramount leaders, in order: Mao Tse-tung, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. The fourth generation's is Hu Jintao, named Communist Party leader last fall and president Saturday.

As when Mr. Jiang was anointed in the tense wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, there's much speculation about Mr. Hu. He proved himself to the party's remaining hard-liners by previously wielding a stern hand in Tibet. But he - and other new leaders installed at last week's annual meeting of China's toothless congress - are believed to be a more moderate bunch.

With sufficient domestic turmoil - always a threat, given the pace of China's economic transformations - such moderation could quickly turn harsh. Moreover, this transition is not wholesale: Mr. Jiang hangs on to perhaps ultimate power by remaining head of China's military, historically the kingmaker.

Still, the fourth generation's arrival marks the formal end for a generation of largely Soviet-trained engineers, chief among them Li Peng, widely reviled as the "Butcher of Beijing" for his leading role in the Tiananmen crackdown. His retirement from senior leadership doubtless pleases many ordinary Chinese, for whom he has long been the butt of relentless black humor.

But Mr. Li leaves another terrible legacy: China's rapid progress toward finally building its Stalinists' pet project, the massive Three Gorges Dam already severing the Yangtze River - a show of national strength that environmentalists fear will quickly turn disastrous. Another show of power, one that more truly speaks to the nation's long-stalled but now quickened advance: Later this year, China intends to shoot its first astronauts into space.

Such is the nature of change in China, a vast tableau in which almost anything can be found, including plenty of cause for both hope and despair. Just last week, it was announced that the Rolling Stones, seeking to rock China since 1970, would finally get to strut there - but perhaps not be allowed to play certain of their more stirring songs.

China ultimately aspires to contend with U.S. power. That's even more reason for Americans to understand its contradictions, large and small, and to welcome the low-key arrival of China's fourth generation as a step forward for a vast and uneven work in slow progress.

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