In 2004 severe pessimism in Beijing about long-term trend lines in relations across the Taiwan Strait raised prospects for conflict over the next few years. However, Taiwan's December 2004 Legislative Yuan elections surprised observers on both sides of the Strait and in the United States. The inability of pro-independence parties to obtain a majority of seats makes it more difficult for them to push through controversial constitutional revisions that may be red lines for PRC military action against Taiwan. Despite mixed trends in the state of cross-Strait relations—manifested on one hand by agreement on two-way, nonstop charter flights between Taiwan and the mainland for the Chinese New Year and on the other by Beijing's pending "anti-secession" legislation—the atmosphere is markedly better than it was last year, and the likelihood of military conflict over the next two to three years seems appreciably lower than it did just a few months ago.
At the 2004 fall plenum, Jiang Zemin finally stepped down as chairman of the party Central Military Commission, abdicating the position to Hu Jintao. Jiang is also expected to relinquish the ceremonial chairmanship of the state Central Military Commission at the National People's Congress (NPC) meeting in March 2005. Hu now possesses the holy trinity of leadership positions: CCP general secretary, PRC president, and CMC chairman. This essay analyzes the origins and dynamics of this transition and ponders the implications of Jiang's retirement for civil-military relations and military modernization.
The Chinese Communist Party has launched a campaign to "maintain the advanced nature of Chinese Communist Party members." Although it may seem anachronistic to carry out an old-style rectification campaign in the early 21st century, the campaign is just one part of a much broader effort to strengthen the "governing capacity" of the party—the primary theme of the Fourth Plenary Session of the 16th Central Committee in September 2004. Party members are cynical about campaigns such as the one just begun, but campaigns nevertheless can give the party center new information about lower-level party cadres and provide a basis for reshuffling careers.
When the Hu-Wen administration took power in spring 2003, it promised an ambitious two-stage program of administrative restructuring followed by decisive reform policies. While the first part of this program has been realized, the second has not. It would have been reasonable to expect a significant acceleration of economic reform and institutionalization during 2004. Instead, a general trend of slow and sometimes disjointed policymaking has emerged. This phenomenon is evident in the three most important areas of financial and macroeconomic policy: restructuring of the banking system, reform of the stock market, and the conduct of macroeconomic policy itself. In none of these three areas has decisive action been forthcoming, as policymakers have instead focused on redistributive policies, such as those affecting agriculture and regional development, a pattern of policymaking that presents numerous challenges and dangers.
Jiang Zemin's replacement by Hu Jintao as China's highest military leader at a major party meeting in September 2004 completes the process of top leadership succession begun two years earlier. Hu's orderly succession to Jiang—first as the top party leader, then as PRC president, and now as China's commander in chief—stands as the only instance of a successfully planned retirement of a top leader in favor of a younger designated successor in the history of a major communist country. It also provokes fundamental questions about how the top leadership level of China's political process works today.
Understanding the kinds of leaders Hu Jintao currently promotes reveals the political and policy objectives he will most likely pursue in the future. Throughout 2004, especially after Hu consolidated his power at the Fourth Plenum of the 16th Central Committee in September, China's provincial leadership underwent a major reshuffling. Most of the newly appointed provincial leaders advanced their political careers primarily through the Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL), received postgraduate education (usually in economics and management), and were leaders in less developed inland provinces. Their recent promotions are attributable not only to their political ties with Hu, but also to the fact that they share Hu's populist vision for China's development. Some of these provincial chiefs will be Hu's nominees for Politburo seats at the next party congress, as well as part of Hu's team to carry out political reform and socioeconomic policies in line with his perceived mandate.