China's transition

September 21, 2004

FEW CENTERS of political machination are more closely watched and still less known with certainty than Zhongnanhai, the central Beijing Kremlin where the top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have tended to live and work. Yes, by fits and starts, China and its ruling party are moving - at times painfully - toward a bit more open governance. But even the best outside analysis often remains riddled with speculation.

Take Sunday's major news at the end of CCP's annual secret party plenum: Immediate past party chairman and national president, Jiang Zemin, stepped down from his last important position as head of the party's powerful Central Military Commission - marking the final formal step by his successor, Hu Jintao, in taking over as head of China's party, state and military.

Given China's rapidly rising economic and military power, this transition obviously could have enormous importance - particularly for the United States, with whom Beijing is locked in a highly symbiotic struggle. But as one respected Western Sinologist based in Hong Kong wryly commented Sunday on a scholarly Internet forum for China watchers: "Well, we weren't sure what would happen, but it did!"

In simple terms, the transition from Mr. Jiang to Mr. Hu - and reported tensions between their two camps that proceeded it - have been cast as a battle between the party's harder-line old guard and its next, more reform-minded generation. Mr. Hu, indeed, may live up to such hopes, now that Mr. Jiang is finally taking a back seat; high-level Taiwanese officials apparently believe this change will mean less bellicosity from Beijing. But that awaits firm evidence.

It is true that the world's largest nation for the very first time has undergone an orderly change in its top leaders. Mao Tse-tung came to power in 1949 amid revolution, and subsequent leadership successions have been marked by infighting that sent potential heirs to disgrace, prison or even death. Mr. Jiang himself rose in the repressive wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. By contrast, the Jiang-to-Hu transition has been smooth, a noteworthy achievement in China's modern evolution.

Of course, one only need look elsewhere in Asia - to once-authoritarian Indonesia, which put on a great show of democracy in its first direct vote for its presidency yesterday - to see how far China still has to go: Indonesians appeared to have voted out of office by a landslide their president, the once widely popular daughter of the nation's founding strongman.

So while Mr. Hu's ascent - and continued moves by the party to institute limited grass-roots democracy and more of an independent judiciary - may provide some hope, they remain merely incremental against the party's continued stranglehold on power. Mark Mr. Hu's most memorable words at the plenum: "History proves following blindly Western political systems would lead China to a dead end."

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