China's New Leadership: Two Centres of Power, One Policy Direction
Frank Ching (Hong Kong, China)
This article originally appeared in the March 19, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher.
The two-week session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, which ended yesterday, brought to a close the political transition that began with the 16th party congress last November.
As expected, Hu Jintao, who succeeded Jiang Zemin as party leader in November, took over as head of state on Saturday. However, Mr Jiang is by no means powerless, since he was re-elected to a five-year term as chairman of the State Military Affairs Commission - the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Thus, there are now two power centres in China, a situation that is inherently abnormal and potentially unstable. In the short term, it may be useful to have Mr Jiang available to handle major issues, such as relations with the United States and Taiwan. In the long run, however, it would be helpful if Mr Jiang was to gracefully fade into the background.
Mr Jiang, of course, is following the precedent established by Deng Xiaoping, who remained China's paramount leader even after he gave up his state and party posts, and who retained only the position of military chief. That was an unsatisfactory arrangement, and was meant to be temporary. After all, Deng, like Mr Jiang today, was, by that point, technically only an ordinary party member, having given up even his seat on the Central Committee. He had engineered the retirement of a whole generation of party elders, letting them serve on a Central Advisory Commission for a few years before abolishing that body.
Deng's goal was to create a system under which people would retire after reaching a certain age. But he could not let go completely, either because he was not fully confident of the younger men he had picked, or because they themselves were unsure they could manage without his guidance.
However, shortly after the June 4, 1989, military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protesters, Deng finally gave up even his military position, before the end of the five-year term.
Mr Jiang is in a similar position. He, too, would like to see China evolve. But again, either because he does not entirely trust the fourth generation of leaders, or because he finds it difficult to give up all power, he is hanging on.
It can be argued that this state of affairs is contrary to the party's doctrine, which states that the People's Liberation Army is the party's army, not the state's army, and must be controlled by the party and be loyal to the party. The party, the late Mao Zedong said, must control the gun, not the other way round. How, then, can someone who is technically not a party leader - who is neither on the Politburo nor even on the Central Committee - control the armed forces?
The political transition is unlikely to result in major policy changes, since there has been a general consensus for the last 25 years on what China's direction should be. The top priority is economic development. Thus, it is not surprising that political commentators in Taiwan are predicting no change in the cross-strait relationship as a result of the leadership changes.
Similarly, there is unlikely to be much change in domestic policy, although raising the standard of living of people in the countryside and in the poverty-stricken western regions is likely to be given a higher priority.
In external policy, relations with the US will remain China's single most important bilateral relationship. China will co-operate with the US in the war against terrorism and on other issues where the two countries' interests coincide. However, there is little likelihood that China will pressure North Korea to halt its nuclear programme. The special status of North Korea was made evident when Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, reported that foreign leaders had sent congratulatory telegrams to Mr Hu upon his election as president.
Topping the list of foreign dignitaries was Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader. His name was followed by those of 14 other world leaders, including the kings of Cambodia and Nepal, the emperor of Japan, and the prime ministers of Japan and Singapore. Apparently, no US or South Korean leader sent a message.