Hu faces dawn of new era in China

Power transfer sheds light on opaque political system

"An institutional process"

September 21, 2004|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Behind the choreographed withdrawal of Jiang Zemin from China's central leadership Sunday was the government's attempt to display a maturing Communist Party completing its first orderly transfer of power. By voluntarily handing control of the military, to President Hu Jintao, Jiang may have signaled the end of an era.

But the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that preceded Jiang's departure from his last major post illustrated something much different: a political system still trapped in the opaque, Kremlin-style intriguing of a bygone era.

The Communist Party of China is building a bureaucracy to run the country and writing rules by which to govern it, but all the key decisions continue to be made behind an impenetrable shroud.

More open society

In a once-closed society that is increasingly open to the world, where the citizens exercise perhaps more personal freedom than ever in their lifetimes, the contrasting style of their cloistered government could hardly be more stark.

It's clearest in the selection of China's top leaders. It is a secretive drama involving factional feuds and gamesmanship that is observable by way of reflection in the positioning of articles and photographs in the state-controlled media, and then only to discerning eyes.

Jiang's resignation as chairman of the Central Military Commission was preceded by subtle messages in the state media, whispers of mid-level party officials and the best guesses of political observers, many of whom turned out to be wrong:

In the end, it's still a small group of people making the most important decisions.

"If it's a broader group, it's not much broader," said Joseph Fewsmith, a China expert at Boston University. "It's still very, very closely held."

The public, deprived of blow-by-blow accounts in the state-run media, remains largely oblivious and indifferent about the selection of their leaders, a process in which it has no say by design. Partly because Chinese governance is opaque, and partly because economic considerations dictate their lives, many Chinese see little meaning in Hu's consolidation of power.

Those paying attention from the outside find it difficult to know whether the leadership maneuverings will have much practical impact for the Chinese people, for the nation's delicate stand-off with Taiwan, or for the rest of the world. With the power struggle apparently resolved, Hu might have more room to be flexible and daring without having to worry about being attacked by hard-liners.

However unlike the towering personalities that ruled China for most of the Communists' first 50 years in power - Mao Tse-Tung and Deng Xiaoping - Hu still does not have room to take risks. The politicking that preceded Jiang's resignation and deferral to Hu is the latest indication, experts said, that leaders in China are now expected to conform to institutions, not defy or remake them.

Jiang, 78, had been expected to turn over the job of military leader to Hu, 61, two years ago, when Jiang stepped down as party chief, because controlling both the military and the party is essential to being the unchallenged leader of the country. The inertia of the system - of party elders and senior officials who believe in institutional power over individual power - may have finally forced Jiang to acquiesce.

"Deng and Mao in particular could shape institutions any way they wanted," said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago. "But today...whatever they do, [leaders] realize there is a limit to how much they can push the system."

This is partly a function of personality. Neither Jiang nor Hu have the charisma or revolutionary aura of Mao and Deng, and thus cannot hold imperial sway over the party. But it's also a function of time, experts say. As the 1949 revolution becomes history, so does its fevered cult of power.

`Cautiously optimistic'

"As you move generation by generation away from the revolution, you always have the question why should I rule and not you, and that begins to make it more of an institutional process," Fewsmith said. "I'm at least cautiously optimistic that we're getting some form of institutionalization, that the pressures from the institution made it impossible for Jiang Zemin to hang on forever, and particularly that his willingness to step aside may further that process."

Jiang's willingness to step aside may have been obtained by striking a deal with Hu. Analysts have suggested that Jiang's paramount concern in leaving public life was to guard his place in history by shielding his family and friends from scrutiny for corruption, and by precluding a reassessment of the 1989 crackdown on democracy protests at and near Tiananmen Square.

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