Last spring, Beijing completed a sweeping leadership transition, bringing to power the youngest and best-educated group of top leaders since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the months since, the new leadership has faced repeated tests presented by domestic and international crises and challenges; it has launched new initiatives in economic and political reform; and it has begun to put its own distinctive stamp on China’s political processes. These actions offer a record on which to make an initial assessment of China’s new leaders with respect to their policy predilections, their domestic priorities, and their approach to the international community, especially the United States.
The transition in leadership—the first orderly, planned succession in the history of any major communist state—began at the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 16th national congress in November 2002. Former party general secretary Jiang Zemin handed his post over to Hu Jintao, a man selected in the early 1990s to succeed him by the architect of China’s far-reaching economic reforms, Deng Xiaoping. In March 2003, at the 10th National People’s Congress (NPC)—China’s parliament—Jiang ceded his post as PRC president to Hu. At the same session, Premier Zhu Rongji handed his post over to his protégé, Wen Jiabao. In what has been portrayed by PRC media as an effort to maintain political stability while the new leaders consolidate their positions, Jiang Zemin retained his post as China’s top military leader.
These changes at the top were complemented by sweeping changes farther down in the political system. In the party’s top decision-making body, the Politburo, the party congress in November 2002 saw the retirement of more than 60 percent of its members in favor of younger leaders. At the NPC in March 2003, all eight vice premiers and state councilors and 18 of 28 heads of government ministries in the State Council (the PRC government’s executive branch) are new. There was comparable turnover among the party secretaries and governors of China’s 31 provinces.
In central party and government institutions, the leadership transition brought to power China’s “fourth generation” of leaders—men and women in their 50s and early 60s who joined the Communist Party and launched their political careers entirely under the PRC, in contrast to most of the preceding generations of leaders, who got their start in the revolutionary period before 1949. Almost all the new leaders have university educations—mostly in engineering and other technical fields—and they gained political advancement thanks to the decades of economic reform under Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. Given their age, they are likely to remain in power for another decade. And in China’s provinces, a “fifth generation” of leaders—men and women in their 40s and early 50s—has emerged, and, barring unforeseen systemic change in China, they are poised to rise to the top in 2012.
On taking power, the new leadership faced a staggering array of long-term problems and dilemmas, both at home and abroad. At home, three decades of reform aimed at re-creating a principally market-driven economy interlocked into the world economy have produced wrenching livelihood dislocations and deep social tensions for tens of millions of Chinese, as well as unprecedented economic opportunity and prosperity for tens of millions of others. Widening disparities in income, surging levels of unemployment, uneven economic development among China’s coastal and interior provinces, rural tax protests, endless complaints about official corruption, and rebuilding flagging public services present problems of governance on an unimaginable scale. Meanwhile, Beijing must press ahead, engaging the international economy while trying to moderate the negative economic and social consequences such engagement may bring.
At the same time, Beijing faces an uncertain strategic and regional environment whose evolution and surprises necessitate constant reassessment of Chinese defense and foreign policies. In particular, the new leadership faces the same dilemma that the outgoing Jiang leadership has confronted since the end of the Cold War: how to cooperate with a United States whose economic and technological power is critical to China’s continued development while at the same time seeking to constrain overwhelming American power in the international order.
The new leadership must deal with all these priorities while pursuing the regime’s larger ambitions of building sustainable national wealth and power and advancing national unification through the incorporation of Taiwan. The scale and complexity of this domestic and foreign policy agenda compel leaders to make policy choices that intimate their predilection for policy activism, their tolerance for risk versus their embrace of caution, and the scope and depth of their governing vision. Since coming to power, the new Hu Jintao–Wen Jiabao leadership has faced several dilemmas and has launched a series of economic and political reforms that tip their approach to leadership.
The first crisis the new leadership confronted was the SARS epidemic. After gestating in the Canton region in 2002 and spreading to several cities—including Hong Kong and Beijing—SARS burst into public view immediately after the NPC closed in March 2003. The epidemic presented the new leadership with a crisis of potentially disastrous consequences for public safety, economic growth, social and political stability, international economic and political ties, and China’s international image. The Hu-Wen leadership moved quickly to contrast its approach to the epidemic with the attempt in previous months to suppress information about the epidemic. Hu and Wen ordered public health officials to report accurately on the spread of the disease and instructed China’s media to carry prominent daily reporting. They sacked dozens of officials in the capital and in 15 provinces—the minister of public health and the mayor of Beijing among them—who had suppressed information about the spread of the epidemic. They personally toured stricken provinces and hospital wards to dramatize the leadership’s concern for the public welfare. They emphasized cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO) and imposed stringent restrictions on travel and other activities to stem the spread of the disease. By the end of June, following two months’ intensive attention, the WHO lifted its ban on travel to Beijing and the epidemic was effectively contained.
The second test of the new leadership was the U.S. war in Iraq in late March and April. In the months preceding the war, Beijing had opposed the use of American military force in Iraq and sought to collaborate with Moscow and Paris in constraining U.S. action within a U.N. framework. As that approach failed and war loomed, Beijing worried publicly about the impact a war might have on world oil markets and therefore on China’s continued economic prosperity and growth, leading to a debate on establishing a strategic oil reserve. Once the war began, in contrast to its vituperative criticism of Washington during the 1998 American intervention in Kosovo, Beijing soft-pedaled public criticism of U.S. actions in Iraq and expressed audible relief that the war did not significantly affect world oil prices.
A third dilemma for the new leadership is the crisis of North Korean nuclear weapons development. In the months after Pyongyang’s acknowledgment in October 2002 that it indeed had a clandestine uranium enrichment program, Beijing adopted a relatively passive posture and urged Washington to deal directly and bilaterally with Pyongyang. Beijing also facilitated the convocation of trilateral U.S.–PRC–North Korean talks in Beijing in late April 2003. After the failure of those talks, however, Beijing began a far more intensive diplomacy among Tokyo, Moscow, Washington, Pyongyang, and Seoul, leading to the six-party talks held in Beijing in August. Another round of Chinese diplomacy has engineered a tentative agreement to hold a second session of the six-party talks. The activism of Beijing’s approach since the new leadership came to power, in contrast to its previously passive approach, may be chalked up in part to a changing assessment of the escalating seriousness of the crisis. But it also reflects the activist predilections of the new leadership.
Finally, the new leadership faced the dilemma of popular protests in Hong Kong, the largest of which erupted on the July 1 anniversary of both the CCP and the reversion of the former British colony to PRC sovereignty in 1997. The protests were triggered by new internal security legislation that the PRC administration under Tung Chee-hwa insisted was necessary as an anti-terrorism step but which many Hong Kong citizens regarded as an ominous erosion of civil liberties. As the demonstrations erupted, the Hu-Wen leadership in Beijing expressed solidarity with the Tung administration, but it also approved the resignation from Tung’s cabinet of two pro-Beijing members. The Tung administration announced that the legislation would be shelved pending “further consultation” with Hong Kong’s citizens, and the legislation was subsequently dropped altogether.
In the months since coming to power, the new leadership has launched several initiatives with respect to China’s economy and the approach of the regime to managing it. The first of these—a major reconfiguration of the State Council’s economic bureaucracy—was endorsed at the NPC in March 2003 and implemented in subsequent months at the height of the SARS crisis. Under the restructuring, several supra-ministerial state commissions were modified, abolished, or created to accommodate requirements of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and to facilitate renewed steps to transform state-owned enterprises—once the heart of China’s communist planned economy—into public corporations and private enterprises. These steps include creation of a new commission to oversee disposition of the assets of transformed state-owned enterprises and the establishment of a banking regulatory body.
Next, the leadership adopted major guidelines for economic reform over the coming decade. Endorsed at a party Central Committee meeting in October, the 42-point document spells out reform priorities in 12 areas, including continued transformation of state-owned enterprises; restructuring of the banking, finance, and tax systems; shifting the state bureaucracy’s approach from direct control to indirect regulation through fiscal and monetary policy; changing China’s foreign trade and investment practices; unemployment and social security reform; and relief for the agricultural sector. Several of the new reform measures will receive authoritative protection next year when the NPC adopts revisions to the 1982 PRC constitution aimed at ensuring private property rights.
Finally, in the summer months Beijing began preparations for landmark reforms in China’s system of media. Virtually all media in China are state owned and remain subject to supervision and censorship by the party’s propaganda apparatus. In the first major media reform since the late 1980s, the new steps in part reflect an effort to accommodate stipulations in China’s WTO accession accords that allow foreign participation in retail distribution of publications and in other roles. The steps also appear to be aimed at reducing the number of redundant party-sponsored publications and to revamp ownership relations among some media outlets. They do not appear, however, intended to alter the capacity of the party and state to regulate media content.
With respect to political reform, the new leadership’s approach reflects an abiding concern to project to China’s public an image of the regime as ready and willing to engage effectively the daunting range of problems of governance the country faces while at the same time ensuring continued Communist Party dominance. These countervailing concerns require an incremental approach to political reform that does not trigger destabilizing systemic revolution, dislodging the party from power. Even so, the activism of the new leadership on the political reform front is refreshing.
For example, the effort to revise the 1982 PRC constitution in 2004 includes changes with respect to politics as well as to property rights in service of economic reform. Just as the Communist Party’s constitution was changed in November 2002, the preamble of the PRC constitution will be revised to reflect the party’s new jargon for transformation of the Communist Party and state from a “proletarian” workers’ and peasants’ party into one that represents the emerging professional, technical, and entrepreneurial middle class in China—a transformation referred to endlessly by the party leadership and Chinese media over the past three years as the “three represents.” In addition, the constitutional revisions will also reportedly address some aspects of enforcing civil rights. These include “freedom of movement” in China, dramatized in the Communist Party’s own newspaper People’s Daily this year by attention to the case of a migrant worker arbitrarily detained and brutally beaten to death by local police in Canton.
Leadership discussion of new civil rights protections in the constitution led to a surge of broader debate on civil and human rights in China in PRC media and among Chinese intellectuals in the early summer months, soon after the new leadership took power. A desire to prevent such a broader debate from escalating beyond the leadership’s ability to channel and steer it (as occurred in late 1986, leading to a major party leadership shake-up, and again in 1988, leading directly to the Tiananmen protests in 1989) appears to have motivated a decision in August to ban further media discussion of this topic and to prohibit intellectual agitation. But deliberations on constitutional revision continue out of public view.
Meanwhile, the new leadership has taken several steps to put a distinctly reformist stamp on its approach to China’s political processes. These steps include
• Emphasis on collective leadership. Even while consolidating his position as top party leader and as PRC president, Hu Jintao has carefully cultivated a public image as merely first among equals within a larger leadership collective.
• Reporting on leadership meetings. Since the party congress in November 2002, PRC media began carrying virtually unprecedented accounts of routine meetings of the party Politburo and other party and state decision-making bodies.
• Leadership commitment to the public welfare. Immediately after the party congress in November 2002, Hu and Wen toured economically backward regions of China and visited constituencies among the populace left behind in an era of economic reform and prosperity. The SARS crisis similarly afforded the new leadership an opportunity to underscore its commitment to the public welfare.
• Cancellation of leadership summer retreat. In July, Beijing disclosed that the Hu leadership had decided to forgo the traditional annual retreat to the seaside resort at Beidaihe. People’s Daily opined that this step was made to replace the elitist connotations of the leadership retreat with an image of the new leadership as “enlightened, open, approachable, and pragmatic” and disclosed that the Beidaihe facilities would henceforth become a publicly accessible resort.
• Official accountability. In the first several months of the Hu-Wen regime, Chinese media have publicized several instances of officials being removed for poor performance, malfeasance, and corruption. These include not only the minister of health and the mayor of Beijing after the SARS crisis broke but also the newly appointed commander of the Chinese navy after the accidental sinking of a navy submarine in May.
These steps and others emphasizing leadership collectivity and consensus, transparency in leadership decision making, official accountability, and responsiveness to the public interest are incremental and small, taken individually. But taken together, they suggest a clear commitment to political reform that seeks to address real problems in a China in the midst of sweeping change, even while seeking to ensure the continued grip of the leadership and party on power.
Initial Report Card
The early record of the Hu Jintao–Wen Jiabao leadership suggests several basic conclusions about their policy preferences and political predilections. First, China’s new leaders are not a status quo leadership that is committed to a conservative course of risk avoidance in order to sustain power. The Hu-Wen leadership is an activist one that has already taken the initiative to transform the status quo while accepting the attendant risks. Internationally, this is clear in Beijing’s intensive diplomacy to defuse the North Korean nuclear crisis. It is also clear domestically in the new leadership’s adroit reversal of the regime’s preceding approach to the SARS epidemic, seeking to turn the crisis to political advantage and advance a variety of reforms.
Second, the Hu-Wen leadership appears to be solidly committed to extending the economic reforms launched two decades ago by Deng Xiaoping and advanced over the previous decade by Jiang Zemin. The new reform guidelines adopted in October 2003 make clear that the new leadership believes that economic development remains the key to China’s future and that China is on the right track in its pursuit of national wealth and power.
Finally, the new leadership’s early tinkering with the political process suggests that it accepts the need for some measure of political reform. The new leadership’s statements and actions so far indicate that it acknowledges the reality of China’s increasingly complex economic and social order and that it seeks to co-opt as many of the diverse interests and constituencies as possible in order to sustain the dominance of the Communist Party. There is no indication that the new leadership entertains a vision of political democratization anything like what Western observers might hope for, but the emergence of a more pluralistic and increasingly law-governed political order under this leadership is a possibility.
For Washington, the advent of the Hu Jintao–Wen Jiabao leadership portends opportunities and challenges. The new leadership’s commitment to furthering China’s international economic relationships means that it will continue to depend on a stable and growing relationship with the West, and the United States in particular, so Washington can expect a real Chinese readiness to collaborate on international issues where it serves Beijing’s interests. At the same time, Beijing’s foreign policy activism, complemented by the increasing competence and evident confidence that the new Chinese leaders bring to bear in foreign affairs, means that Beijing will prove not only a useful partner on issues where U.S. and PRC interests converge but also a more difficult opponent on issues where they diverge. Also, over the longer term, the advance of economic and political reforms under the new leadership portends an evolution toward a more open, pluralistic, and potentially better-governed political order in China. At the same time, this evolution is likely to fall well short of fulfilling American democratic ideals, so many of the political issues and concerns that have figured into American China policy will not go away any time soon.