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China's New Leader Faces Tough Political Challenges - 2003-10-07

A younger and, some analysts believe, more open-minded leadership has come to power in China, the world's most populous country. Sixty-one year old Hu Jintao is both President of the country and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

But in his first year in power, analysts say Mr. Hu has not made a clear imprint as a progressive leader. In August, under Hu's direction, the communist party issued an order prohibiting debate on the topics of political reform, constitutional amendments and reassessing historical incidents, such as Beijing's 1989 crackdown on democracy protests.

Susan Lawrence has just returned to Washington, after serving as Beijing correspondent for the weekly magazine, the Far Eastern Economic Review. She says the Chinese leader is moving carefully, so as not to provoke unrest: “I see this as very much part of what Hu Jintao is about. I think Hu Jintao on the one hand has been pushing forward some very populist policies. On the other hand, Hu Jintao, though, is very keen not to allow social tensions to well up, and the way he is dealing with that is to try and control public discourse on sensitive subjects.”

Other analysts think former Chinese President Jiang Zemin may be behind the August order to restrict discussion. They say Jiang may be working as a brake on reform in his position as head of the powerful Central Military Commission.

Hu Jintao inherited a complicated situation from his predecessor Jiang Zemin. Analysts say China's closed political system is increasingly at odds with its opening economy. The economic reforms of the past two decades have reduced the state's share of output and employment and created new sources of power outside of the Chinese communist party.

One of the main problems facing China is the imbalance in the country's economic development: the coastal areas and big cities in eastern China have far outpaced rural regions and cities in China's interior. As a result, people from the countryside are flowing into urban centers in search of work. The villages are left under populated and badly served, and China's big cities are becoming even more crowded.

David Lampton is director of China Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies here in Washington. He says China's new leadership is aware of the challenges it faces and has put forward an agenda: “I think this leadership stands for a more balanced development as opposed to a widespread perception that previous economic and social development in China has been unbalanced. I think they also are perceived as standing for something we might call more procedural justice and, I think, more transparency and greater accountability on the part of officials.”

Some analysts say President Hu's most challenging task may be keeping up with the times. While China's economy is becoming more market oriented, its political system is lagging behind. It still permits just one political party: the Chinese Communist Party.

In the year 2000, then-President Jiang Zemin tried to broaden the party's appeal. In an effort to keep up with China's fast-changing economic landscape, Jiang opened the way for private business people to join the party.

Ms. Lawrence of the Far Eastern Economic Review says the Communist Party is trying to maintain its monopoly on power by allying with the country's new elite class of entrepreneurs: “This new ideology says that the party needs to align itself with dynamic parts of the economy, like tycoons, like the private sector, and, particularly, extremely successful private companies. The result of this reworking of the communist party's role and sort of mission is that you now have governments all over China which are under orders to reach out very actively to the private sector, giving them a chance to weigh in on all sorts of policies that local governments are making.”

Ms. Lawrence says China's Communist Party is leaving its history behind: “It's really a very, very fundamental reworking of what the party is all about, and it's replacing Marxism. Basically, it is a successful attempt to chuck out Marxist considerations in everything the party does.”

But Ms. Lawrence says President Hu is wary of pushing too hard: “He's very attuned to the dangers of looking like the party is a party of fat-cats and not of the peasantry and workers. I don't think he, in fact, has serious problems with the Jiang Zemin agenda, but I think he sees it as having public relations problems, and so he has very much emphasized since he came to power that he is a man of the people and supports the downtrodden.”

Analysts say Mr. Hu has gained some popularity by making it easier to get passports, removing bureaucratic obstacles to getting married, and defending the rights of migrant workers in the cities.

But Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, here in Washington, says such measures are merely "tinkering with the system." He believes that to avoid a crisis in governance, China's new leaders will have to make more drastic political reforms. And that may mean breaking up the party's monopoly on power, something Chinese leaders have consistently rejected.

In the absence of democracy, especially in rural areas, Mr. Pei says some Chinese citizens are increasingly being victimized by alliances between corrupt party officials and criminals. As a result, the Communist Party is losing credibility.

“Local criminals would use bribes to buy political influence, and then those local party bosses would use money collected from criminal elements to buy their offices, to buy additional power and then they would use their power to reward local criminal elements in real estate deals, businesses, and local criminal elements would control local businesses, so it's really an enmeshment of interests and criminal activities.”

About 10 years ago, the Communist Party started experimenting with a limited form of democracy in villages. And there are media reports of rural townships challenging the Communist Party by organizing direct elections for mayor, but such efforts have often been halted by the Communist Party bureaucracy.

Again, Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment: “The other reform, which can be done but is not being done, is increase local democracy, institute township elections for example, but at the moment I think the central leaders are very risk averse on that front, because their power is not yet fully consolidated, so they would like to wait and see.”

China analysts say democracy in China is pushing from the bottom up. The admittance of entrepreneurs into party organizations and talk of allowing more elections on the local level are the clearest examples. But can the new leadership of Hu Jintao maintain social stability and economic growth by such measures? Or will it need to start addressing the more fundamental issue of the communist party's monopoly on power? That may well be Hu Jintao's biggest challenge in the coming years.