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China Prepares for a Major Transfer of Power - 2001-12-28

China is preparing for a major transfer of power next year at the 16th Communist Party Congress. Five of the seven members of China's elite Politburo Standing Committee will step down, including President Jiang Zemin. The new generation of leaders will face the tremendous task of managing vast economic changes while trying the maintain political stability.

One thing is almost certain about the outcome of next year's 16th Party Congress: President Jiang Zemin will hand leadership of the Chinese Communist Party over to Vice President Hu Jintao, who has been groomed as Mr. Jiang's successor for almost 10 years. At least half of the ruling Politburo positions will be vacant. But everything else about the Party Congress is a closely guarded secret, leading analysts to speculate how the Communist Party will adapt to change during the next five years. Will it allow for more diversity of views or will it force consensus to protect stability? Will one strong leader emerge of will there be an unaccustomed power-sharing in the Communist Party?

This 16th Party Congress will mark what Beijing is calling the transition from a "third generation" of communist leaders to a "fourth generation."

The fourth generation will be distinguished as the first completely removed from the Communist Party's revolutionary beginnings more than 50 years ago. Analysts say this means the government is less likely to be under the control of one central charismatic leader. In fact, this has been the trend since Deng Xiaoping died. His successor President Jiang Zemin hasn't wielded the same political clout as Communist China's founding leaders. In fact Hu Jintao was hand-picked by Mr. Deng at the party congress in 1992 and not President Jiang. Since then Mr. Hu has received collective approval by senior leaders.

Wu Guoguang, a former Communist Party official now teaching at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says without a strong central leader to dictate policy it will mean that decisions will have to be reached collectively.

Therefore a new type of governing will require a new type of leader. And in fact China's next president, Hu Jinato, is not a traditional choice. Very little is known about Mr. Hu, which has been the key to his rise in power.

Mr. Wu says that Hu Jintao's success comes from the fact that he has hidden his personality. He has been a member of the ruling elite for almost 10 years, but has avoided making political mistakes by upstaging other leaders or identifying himself too closely with either conservatives or reformists.

This is expected it may give Mr. Hu room to maneuver and forge compromise among groups since he has not identified himself with any of them. But it also means that he will have work harder to be seen as legitimate.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong, says Mr. Hu will likely remain very cautious until he is firmly in the driver's seat, that is, well into 2003. "Hu Jintao is not going to make any dramatic initiatives before he's really sure to be in charge and in control of major constituencies and power in the country," he says.

Next year's transition comes at a critical time for China, with painful economic reforms mandated by World Trade Organization membership bound to cause societal upheaval. The potential for instability is great and will be a paramount concern for the Communist Party and its monopoly on power.

The last great challenge to party came during the 1989 pro-democracy protests at Beijing's Tiananmen Square and the party is still sensitive to the effects.

Fred Teiwes, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney, says party leaders believe that the social unrest in 1989 was partly sparked by factional fighting and therefore will try to avoid internal power struggles during this next critical period. "We … must … not create battles among ourselves, which will then lead to a weakening of the party and potential overthrow from below. … Certainly there will be some elements of the top leadership interested in pursuing some aspects of political reform," he says. "But if the last five or 10 years have shown anything, whenever a challenge is perceived, there's almost this reflex action to crack down on it."

But fractures may be difficult to avoid as China's markets open up - exposing the country to outside influences and ideas. The fourth generation of leaders, including Mr. Hu, came of age during China's period of economic reform and therefore will be committed to market liberalization, but they still feel that political instability could threaten the very survival of the Communist Party.