China's leader gets full power

President Hu takes reins when predecessor Jiang resigns top military post

First orderly handover since '49

Some experts see hope for less-bellicose policies

China's president is handed reins of power

September 20, 2004|By Mark Magnier | Mark Magnier,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIJING - More than a year after becoming China's president, Hu Jintao was handed the full reins of power yesterday when his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, gave up the nation's most powerful military post.

The move ends an awkward power-sharing arrangement that has seen two rival camps maneuvering for position as China faces a number of major foreign and domestic policy challenges, such as relations with Taiwan, North Korea's nuclear program, government corruption and rapid economic growth.

The nation learned of the change in a somber newscast yesterday at the conclusion of a four-day, closed-door meeting of the Communist Party's central committee. The announcement suggested that the move was Jiang's idea, even though the 78-year-old former president had been under growing pressure to step aside in favor of Hu, 61.

Jiang's resignation clears the way for the next generation to put its full stamp on affairs of state, but analysts said they did not expect any immediate shift in China's foreign or domestic policies as Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao continue moving incrementally.

Still, many observers said the transition shows that China's governing machinery is gradually modernizing, making decisions more on the basis of consensus and enhancing political control over the military.

After the disorderly transition between Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping, and another between Deng and Jiang, Jiang's departure completes China's first orderly leadership handover since the Communists took over in 1949.

"This is great for China and great for Jiang himself," said Wang Yukai, professor at the National School of Administration in Beijing. "Jiang has successfully filled his historic task, and other leaders will now have much more freedom. This is the real start of the Hu era."

In assuming Jiang's position as chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, Hu now holds the nation's three top posts - president, military leader and Communist Party chief. Although Jiang will retain a second military title until March, analysts said it is largely ceremonial.

What didn't happen

For observers, what does not happen often can be as significant as what does. Some had speculated that Vice President Zeng Qinghong, a key Jiang ally, might be put on the military commission in exchange for Jiang's stepping down. This would have allowed Jiang to continue wielding influence, particularly given Zeng's reputation for hardball political tactics.

Instead, the party named Xu Caihou, 61, as vice chairman of the military commission, filling the vacancy left by Hu's elevation.

"It's a good thing Zeng was not promoted," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China expert with the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. "That would have left the wolf in the sheep's grounds."

Xu is not a particularly high-profile figure, leading some analysts to suggest that he was a compromise candidate who did not offend either camp. Yet others point out that although Xu is not strongly identified with either group, he has ties to the Central Party secretariat, where Zeng is influential, indicating that his promotion was a bone thrown to Jiang's camp.

In the 18 months since becoming president, Hu has cultivated a more down-to-earth image than Jiang, who was seen as a somewhat-stuffy champion of the privileged. With populist touches and sympathetic gestures toward farmers and migrant workers, Hu and Wen have won support among average Chinese.

"There's a move to be the party of the common man rather than the party of elites," said Stephen Green, head of the Asia program at Chatham House, an independent institute based in London. "I think they'll continue in that direction."

Looking ahead

Symbolism and good public relations aside, however, Hu and Wen's vision for China has been relatively hard to glean. Although Hu said last week that following the West's political model would be a "dead end" for China, many observers hope he is more reform-minded than Jiang.

"We'll have to see in the next few months whether there's been a real consolidation or if they're just rearranging the deck chairs," Green said.

Despite Jiang's departure, analysts said they expect Hu to continue moving cautiously in the coming months, reflecting both his personal style and the need to consolidate his position.

Jiang, a former Shanghai mayor, became party chief in 1989 and president in 1993. His long tenure enabled him to fill government and party ranks with allies, and Hu will need to win them over. In particular, Jiang's clique in Shanghai has actively opposed Hu and Wen's recent bid to slow down China's overheated economy because they fear their pet real-estate and civic projects may be canceled.

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