The recent transition in China’s leadership marks the culmination of a decade-long effort to institutionalize orderly succession at the top of China’s political order. The succession of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) new general secretary, Hu Jintao, and the promotion of a new generation of party decision makers extend the effort begun two decades ago to install leaders who are dedicated to building China’s wealth through integration into the world economy and to enhancing China’s national power through technological and military modernization.
Along with the turnover of top leaders, the CCP constitution has also been revised to permit the admission of the rising entrepreneurial, technical, and professional elites who have emerged in Chinese society thanks to the reforms of the past two decades. Even more than the transfer of power at the top of the party, this change promises fundamental transformation of the political order itself. It may therefore turn out to have watershed significance in China’s political evolution. And these changes in China’s politics have long-term significance for American policy toward the PRC.
Why Party Congresses Are Important
The above-mentioned events took place at the CCP’s 16th National Congress, which was held in Beijing November 8–14, 2002. As in all communist political systems, a national party congress is the most important public event in Chinese politics. Party congresses in China meet every five years, and they perform several basic tasks:
• Summing up the successes and shortcomings in the party’s work over the five years since the last party congress and laying out broad priorities and policy guidelines for the next five years. These two tasks are normally addressed in a long report delivered by the presiding party general secretary.
• Electing a new Central Committee, a body of roughly 200 party leaders who hold key posts elsewhere in the party and in the PRC state, military, and other institutional hierarchies. Following the close of the party congress, the new Central Committee holds its first full meeting—a plenum—to appoint or reappoint the party’s top leadership, including the party’s top leader (the general secretary), its Politburo (the body of 20–25 members who decide all major issues confronting the party), and the Politburo’s Standing Committee (the core subset of the Politburo that makes day-to-day decisions). The Central Committee elected at the recent party congress held its first plenum on November 15 and carried out the transition in the party’s top leadership.
• Revising the party constitution. All party congresses since the 12th National Congress (1982) adopted the existing party constitution have made changes to the document.
Because party congresses perform tasks of fundamental political significance, preparations for them begin heating up the political atmosphere in Beijing more than a year in advance. Party leaders begin sounding out policy departures, encoded in Marxist-Leninist jargon, that they hope to have endorsed in the general secretary’s report at the upcoming congress. Meanwhile, slates of potential candidates for the new Politburo circulate in internal channels, triggering endless rounds of frequently contradictory rumors and public speculation about who is winning and who is losing in the political sweepstakes.
The road to the 16th Congress turned out to be no different. During a tour of south China in early 2000, party General Secretary Jiang Zemin raised a new theme that he sought to have endorsed at the party congress slated for 2002. Jiang argued that the party must stand for the most advanced trends in China’s economic development and culture and must reflect the interests of China’s people as a whole, an idea that was subsequently referred to endlessly in PRC media as the “three represents.” The object of this new formulation would be to broaden the social base of the Communist Party, permitting the admission of China’s rising middle class of enterprise managers and entrepreneurs, technicians and administrators, and professionals such as lawyers. If implemented, the “three represents” would also dilute and potentially obliterate the pretense that the CCP remains a “proletarian” party of China’s workers. Jiang’s “three represents” theme was solidly endorsed by the top party leadership in the spring of 2000, and it was repeatedly reaffirmed in highly authoritative party statements and leadership speeches. But it also triggered an outpouring of protest from the party’s rank and file, opposition that intensified as the party congress approached.
The 16th Congress was also expected to see a sweeping transition of generations in the top party leadership. At age 76, Jiang Zemin was widely expected to step down in 2002 as top party and military leader at the party congress (and as PRC president at the meeting of China’s parliament in the spring of 2003). Replacing him in all his posts would be 60-year-old Hu Jintao, a man picked by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1990s as the core leader of a new generation of party leaders who had been groomed to succeed Jiang over the past 10 years. In addition, more than half of the party Politburo was expected to retire in favor of leaders, such as Hu, in their late 50s and early 60s.
These plans appeared well in hand until June 2002, when, on the eve of the leadership’s annual planning retreat, a torrent of rumors erupted in Beijing that Jiang was having second thoughts about retiring. Such a turnabout might seem routine in light of the notorious lack of institutionalization—particularly with respect to leadership succession—in all communist political systems. But from the perspective of China’s politics over the past two decades, it would have been a crushing setback. Deng Xiaoping began, and Jiang continued, an effort to deliver what no other major communist country has managed—an orderly succession at the top.
China’s New Leaders
In most respects, the leadership changes at the 16th Congress lived up to expectations. As anticipated, Hu Jintao replaced Jiang Zemin as party general secretary. He also appears slated to replace Jiang as PRC president in the spring of 2003. With respect to the party Politburo, 13 of 23 members retired, and 15 new members were added. On the Politburo Standing Committee, six of seven members retired, leaving Hu Jintao as the only continuing member. Joining Hu were eight new members, expanding the Standing Committee to a total of nine.
The new Politburo leaders share a number of characteristics and experiences that in some ways resemble and in others differ from the retiring generation of leaders around Jiang Zemin who ran China in the 1990s and, before them, the veteran revolutionaries associated with Deng Xiaoping who dominated the reform politics of the 1980s. The new leaders are
• Young. They average 60 years in age, two years younger than the group of leaders appointed around Jiang Zemin in 1997 and more than a decade younger than Deng’s associates appointed in 1982.
• A new generation. They came of age and joined the party in the early 1960s, and so they saw their incipient careers disrupted by the horrendous turmoil of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which Mao Zedong launched in 1966. They saw their careers take off only with the launching of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the late 1970s. Jiang’s generation of Politburo leaders came of age during the heyday of China’s collaboration with the Soviet Union in the early 1950s, and they also advanced into the upper reaches of China’s political order in the Deng reform period. By contrast, Deng Xiaoping’s associates drew predominantly from among members of the CCP’s founding generation, who had long careers as revolutionaries before coming to power in 1949.
• Educated. They are the best-educated group since the founding of the PRC. Of the 25 members of the new Politburo, 22 have university educations: 17 are engineers, 1 has a degree in the sciences, 2 have degrees in economics or management, and 1 has a military academy degree. The new leadership has only a single leader educated in the humanities—in philosophy. In the Jiang leadership, 17 of 24 leaders had university degrees, 16 of which were in engineering or scientific fields. By contrast, no one in the Deng leadership had a university degree.
• Civilian. As was the case in the Jiang Politburo, the new leadership has almost no military experience. Only two representatives of China’s military brass sit on the new Politburo. Two others served briefly as soldiers early in their careers, but neither has experience in military leadership positions. By contrast, 20 of the 25 members of the Deng Politburo had extensive military leadership experience, and 8 continued to serve in military roles.
The leadership turnover at the 16th Congress put in place leaders who rose to the top in the course of the modernization priorities pressed by Deng Xiaoping beginning in the late 1970s and who are, by education, experience, and outlook, committed to continuing those policies. As was the case during Jiang Zemin’s tenure, China is in the hands of technocrats who understand politics as practical problem solving, not romantic revolutionaries who seek to transform society according to utopian ideals.
In pursuing these priorities, the Hu leadership may draw on the advice of, and perhaps also endure the kibitzing of, Jiang Zemin. Contrary to some expectations before the congress, Jiang did not retire altogether, being reappointed as China’s top military leader. Undoubtedly, Jiang rationalized keeping this sensitive political post on grounds of maintaining a steady hand on the helm as the new generation of leaders around Hu Jintao establishes itself amid the uncertainties in domestic governance and foreign policy that Beijing faces. But it is hard to see this as reflecting anything more than a reluctance on Jiang’s part to cede power completely and a desire to retain command over a critical base of power in Chinese politics. For that reason, the leadership transition at the congress did not entirely fulfill the goal of institutionalizing orderly succession.
For the near term, the new leadership will likely lead China in directions already familiar from the Jiang years.
The Hu leadership will push ahead with the agenda of market-based economic reform under the new constraints imposed by the PRC’s accession to the World Trade Organization. The expansion of the Politburo Standing Committee appears intended in part to address the impact on China’s agricultural, industrial, and financial sectors that the phasing in of WTO concessions will bring over the next few years. The new leaders are also likely to press ahead with the opportunities for enhancing China’s already growing role in the world economy that WTO membership affords.
We will not see any loosening of the regime’s authoritarian controls on dissent or expansion of political liberties in any meaningful degree. The social and political tensions already stimulated by two decades of economic change will undoubtedly sharpen as the impact of further economic reforms, induced in part by accession to the WTO, is felt among China’s urban and rural populace. The doubling of members on the Politburo Standing Committee who will apparently devote their efforts to law-and- order issues attests to the leadership’s anticipation of such tensions.
The Hu leadership will continue the efforts at military modernization begun in 1985 under Deng Xiaoping and advanced by Jiang Zemin throughout the 1990s. The Jiang leadership was shocked at the demonstration of advanced American military technology in the 1991 Gulf War, leading to an even greater emphasis on long-term technological modernization of China’s military. China’s progress in this respect has been notable but uneven; the Hu leadership will continue in the same direction, given prevailing trends of military modernization in the Asia-Pacific region.
Collaboration with Washington will continue to be a priority. The American war on terrorism has given Beijing new opportunities in this regard. But Beijing continues to be wary of the implications for China’s security of overwhelming American power in the international order, while at the same time needing American markets and investment for China’s continuing economic development. During visits to the major capitals of Europe in the fall of 2001 and to Washington in the spring of 2002, Hu demonstrated a sure grasp of international affairs and of Beijing’s positions on issues in U.S.-China bilateral relations. But the basic dilemma that Beijing has dealt with since the end of the Cold War remains the same—finding ways to balance against the world’s single strategic power while at the same time depending on the world’s leading economy.
Although the immediate policy prognosis for the new leadership is continuity, the revisions in the party constitution portend regime transformation over the longer term. The incorporation of the “three represents” reflects an undisguised attempt by the CCP to co-opt what is recognizably the most dangerous revolutionary force in all modernizing societies: the middle class.
At the 16th Congress, the “three represents” were written into the party constitution as part of the CCP’s guiding ideology, complementing Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, and Deng Xiaoping Theory. The party was now redefined not only as the “vanguard” of China’s “working class” but also of “the Chinese nation and the Chinese people.” Significantly, the party’s admission criteria—which allowed new members from “workers, peasants, members of the armed forces, intellectuals, and revolutionaries”—replaced “revolutionaries” with “advanced elements of other social strata.”
In explaining the necessity of these revisions over the past two years, Jiang and other leaders have stressed the need to take account of the impact of two decades of market-based economic reforms on China’s social landscape. As all-powerful state planning bureaucrats have given way to joint venture entrepreneurs, enterprise managers, technical and legal professionals, and other elites, the party’s traditional roots in Chinese society have withered. As these new elites increasingly command resources and power in China’s economy, Jiang has argued, the party faces the necessity of co-opting them by admitting them to the party itself.
This step has been intensely controversial among the party rank and file, which has protested that admission of such elites amounts to inducting the “bourgeoisie” itself into the party and so irretrievably compromises the mission and identity of the CCP as a Communist Party. Jiang and other party leaders, including Hu Jintao, have stressed that if these new social elites are not given political voices in the party itself, they will soon have sufficient resources and skills to emerge as a political opposition to the regime.
There is an unmistakable note of desperation in these rebuttals, and Jiang and others have presented the “three represents” as both a necessity and a gamble. The experience of societies witnessing the emergence of a middle class suggests that in China—where the middle class by some estimates already numbers more than 100 million people—this is a gamble the party may lose.
In that respect, the changes introduced at the 16th Congress reflect a critical turning point in the evolution of China’s communist political order. This evolution began with the rise of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, when Deng imposed his post-revolutionary agenda of modernization on the party, replacing Mao’s revolutionary agenda of class warfare and egalitarian social transformation. Some people must get rich first, Deng stated, to lead the way in China’s effort to become prosperous and powerful. That agenda has succeeded. Some people have gotten rich, or perhaps richer than others, and they have led the way in China’s rise as an economic power. But they are also beginning to gain political power. In a very real sense, therefore, party rule may, at long last, be nearly over.