Viewpoints: The 'Changing' of the Chinese Guard

Chinese Communist Party
A brass band plays at the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, Nov. 15, 2002, where nine new members were elected to the Standing Politburo (Photo: AFP).

Hong Kong Wen Wei Po (government-controlled), Nov. 16: During the large-scale succession of the new to the old, it is most important to maintain the stability of the armed forces. Jiang Zemin has served as chairman of the Central Military Commission for 13 years, and Hu Jintao as vice chairman of the commission for three years. Following the pattern set up by Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin's continuing to serve as chairman of the Central Military Commission is conducive to stabilizing the morale of the armed forces and the smooth transition from the old to the new generation.

Taipei China Post (pro-government), Nov. 20: What counts in Chinese politics is still the force of personality. During the time of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, people who held such titles as president or party leader did not necessarily hold power, which was often in the hands of those without those titles. After all, Mr. Deng was China's acknowledged paramount leader at a time when his only position was being the chairman of the Chinese Bridge Association. It is likely that Mr. Jiang, even after he gives up the position of party leader at the congress and the position of state president next March, will still exercise considerable political influence behind the scenes, perhaps through retaining his position as head of the Central Military Commission and through protégés whom he has placed in positions of power. But Mr. Jiang, unlike Deng, will not be able to wield power without a power base. In this sense, China is turning into a more normal country, with those who hold titles actually wielding the power that is supposed to go with those titles.
—Frank Ching

Beijing Renmin Ribao (Communist Party), Nov. 16: The third-generation central leadership with Jiang Zemin at the core has held high the banner of Deng Xiaoping Theory [the various pronouncements that have guided Chinese economic reform since 1978—WPR] and united and led the entire party and people of different ethnic groups in overcoming various difficulties to make achievements in reform, drive modernization, and win heartfelt support and respect from the party and people. Now, carrying forward the party's cause into the future, the leaders have shown communists’ exemplary conduct and nobility of character by retiring from their posts in the central leadership.... The Party is confident that the Party Central Committee with Hu Jintao as the general secretary will implement the important “Three Represents” theory [read the speech where it was first articulated] and carry out the historic mission...of championing the cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Hong Kong Ta Kung Pao (government-controlled), Nov. 16: People can easily see that most of the committee members of the Political Bureau are new faces, and that eight of the nine standing committee members of the Political Bureau are new. The key members of the CPC [Communist Party of China] high-level leadership were smoothly relieved of duty. This reflects the foresight, political daring and resolution, and complete confidence of the CPC leaders. At the same time, it clearly indicates that the succession of the new to the old in the levels of CPC leadership is gradually becoming systematized, standardized, and orderly. The Communist Party of China is already a mature ruling party.

Tokyo Sankei Shimbun (right-wing), Nov. 18: Calling the new leadership the “Hu regime” raises a question, because Jiang kept his post as head of the Central Military Commission even though he is expected to retire as state president next spring. Jiang may have followed the footsteps of Deng Xiaoping, who exercised his power by keeping the Central Military Commission chairmanship even after retiring from the Central Committee. With efforts to concentrate power, Deng handed over power to Jiang in 1989 five months after Jiang's assuming the post of general secretary. Jiang seems to have an intention to influence the new administration by forming a “cloister government,” illustrated by the fact that the posts of the overwhelming number of the new Political Bureau members are occupied by a close aide to or leaders close to Jiang.... It will be difficult for Hu to come up with his own policies.

Sydney Sydney Morning Herald (centrist), Nov. 19: The Chinese Communist Party's transfer of power to a fourth generation of leaders attests to flexibility as much as strength. The flexibility that has allowed the party to exploit capitalist solutions to China's economic problems looks like [it will be] working for some time yet. The better the economy performs the less pressing has the need been to deal with the profound contradictions in the political system. But these contradictions are merely postponed, not resolved.... The greatest danger, political instability, is well recognized by the ruling party. It is probably the single most important determinant of how power was transferred at the party congress last week.... Hu Jintao has not risen to the top by standing out from the crowd but by keeping his head down and doing what was expected of him—including, in 1988-92, when he was party secretary in Tibet, suppressing dissent. It is in this area that the new guard will face their toughest test in the years ahead. They can consolidate the power of the party as long as the economy continues to grow.... [But] at some point, prosperity can also increase the pressure for social and political change.

Melbourne The Age (centrist), Nov. 16: It hardly qualifies as regime change. But on those infrequent occasions that the leadership of one-fifth of the globe's inhabitants alters, the world is obliged to sit up and take notice. China's Communist Party has replaced its central committee, from which the ruling Politburo and ultimately the national leadership is drawn, at its 16th party congress. The changing of the guard, behind closed doors, brings few surprises other than the apparent ease with which the country's septuagenarian leadership is divesting itself of power.... At the domestic level, the changes are designed to show the Chinese people that the ship of state is sailing along on a sea of happiness, that there is stability along with the new prosperity that hundreds of millions of urban Chinese enjoy as a result of economic reforms. The attempt to graft the economic free market on to a communist autocracy has been labeled “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” In truth, for the moment not much has changed.

Toronto The Toronto Star (liberal), Nov. 16: Hu Jintao was a bookish little boy from a modestly prosperous family of Shanghai merchants when Mao Zedong's “China Reds” swept into power. He is not a revolutionary hero, or even a military man. He’s a witty, Internet-savvy hydrological engineer who sweated in the boondocks during Mao's crazed cultural revolution.... With Hu's accession Friday at the 16th Communist Party Congress—on a cautious pledge to “keep pace with the times and work hard to build a better-off society”—the new China is no longer led by a Mao-era icon. The break with revolutionary socialism is complete, psychologically at least. Totalitarian rule lingers, but it is in intellectual retreat....leadership change in Beijing is rare, and always a moment of opportunity. Hu should be encouraged to democratize, even as he speeds China's engagement with the rest of the world. We must resist the tendency, all too visible in U.S. President George Bush's entourage, to treat China as a problem rather than a partner.

London The Observer (liberal weekly), Nov. 17: The nine men, led by Hu Jintao, appointed to the new Politburo at the 16th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party last week now face huge challenges.…While the direction of change appears set, the pace of reform is up for grabs. And the new line up in the Politburo, the all-powerful committee that runs China, does not encourage confidence that economic reform is going to accelerate, as it needs to do. There are three reasons for this. First, government by committee is usually bad government. This Politburo is larger than the previous one, and there is now no clear leader to stamp his fist on the table and take a decision. General Secretary Hu does not have that authority. Second, Hu's Politburo is full of Jiang Zemin's supporters. While Jiang has stepped down from the party leadership he retains control of the military, and foreign policy.... This is a problem because Hu Jintao is now going to have a hard time consolidating his power. Rivals will be circling, and any mistake on Hu's part will be pounced on mercilessly. A period of political instability right at the top of the party is likely. Third, and most worryingly, most of the new Politburo is made up of men chiefly known for their upright political behavior—they follow the party line above all else. Any thoughts of movement on political reform can be safely shelved…. A serious concern is that most of them lack expertise in economic matters. None have displayed any vision at all for what needs to be done.
—Stephen Green