October 30, 2000


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The Rediff Special/ Yukteshwar Kumar

China: The passing of the baton

The process of anointing the new president of the People's Republic of China is truly a management proposition from hell. Consider the problems: incessant behind-the-scenes manoeuvering; handpicked proteges vying for the post; the tension between political conservatism and the on-going process of economic liberalisation...

In the olden days, a contender to the imperial throne of China required a mystical aura of power; he had to be perceived as someone who could do everything -- from moving mountains to changing the weather. Today's ruler has a different set of problems -- though he faces stiff competition, he still remains a prisoner of the party. At the same time, he is required to have skills that will help China enter the elite clique of developed nations.

The following example will illustrate how things have changed. Emperor Wu of Han ruled China for more than half a century. But under the current Communist system where many party cadres hanker after power, it is highly unlikely President Jiang Zemin will last beyond a dozen years. The 16th Congress of the Communist Party, scheduled for the fall of 2002, will witness sea changes in the nation's central leadership.

Jiang, the third supreme leader (after Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping), will relinquish his post and offer the ceremonial robes of state to his deputy, Hu Jintao. The relatively youthful Hu will serve concurrently as general secretary of the Communist party, another office currently held by Jiang.

This transition is not the result of unanimous consent -- Jiang wanted his protege, Cheng Qinghong, to succeed him. Unhappily for Jiang, Cheng will have to be satisfied with being Hu's heir-apparent. Jiang, however, will continue to serve as chairman of the Military Commission. At 76, he will be the exception to the unwritten rule that a leader, on turning 70, shall relinquish all party and government posts.

Another convention, since the days of Mao Zedong, is the secret meeting at Beidaihe, before the main session of the party, of the top 20 politburo members of the central committee. Situated some 180 km from Beijing, Beidaihe is a popular resort with top cadre members.

This time, the secret meeting was held two years in advance because of certain domestic and international problems faced by China. Besides, the party wanted to allocate the new leaders their responsibilities before the nation's 10th five year plan takes off in 2001.

At the meeting, which was held in August, three major issues were discussed.

The first was the ticklish issue of Taiwan. Criticised, in recent years for corruption, venality and jobbery, the KMT, which ruled the island since its inception, received a very feeble response in the recently-held election. The fact that the victor was Chen Shuibian, an advocate of total independence from the mainland, as president of China's rogue province, shook the Communist party.

With the nation on the threshold of entering the World Trade Organisation, the party also had to take a second look at the nation's policies and strategies. Both the European Union and US have already signed the treaty; China only needs to negotiate with two more pliable nations to become a full-fledged member. As a result, its economy faces a WTO-mandated overhaul. This is something the reformist leaders want at the earliest possible date, as it would give the farmers and the factories greatly expanded access to world's vast consumer market.

The third and the most important issue was the section of new leaders for both the nation and the party. Both Li Peng, the former premier of the nation (generally abhorred by the younger generation because of his repressive measures during the 1989 Tiananmen square movement) and Zhu Rongji, the current prime minister, will retire.

2002: China's power structure

President; CPC general secretary
Hu Jintao

Chairman, Military Commission
Jiang Zemin

Chairman, National People's Congress
Li Ruihuan

Premier, State Council
Li Changchun

First deputy premier; chairman, CPPCC
Li Lanqing

Cheng Qinghong

Second Deputy Premier
Wu Bangguo

Third Deputy Premier
Zhou Jiakang

The above posts are listed in hierarchical order. The first seven names are part of the politburo's standing committee at the party's central committee.

Hu Jintao, at 60, will be the nation's youngest chairman since Mao. Hu, compared to the octogenarians who held sway through the 1980s and early 1990s, is a political neophyte. He comes from Gansu province on the undeveloped western fringe of the nation and has worked in Guizhou and Tibet at top levels of the provincial administration. As general secretary of the party in Tibet during the early 1990s, Hu's work in the region has been lauded by party members. His background and expertise in the remote provinces could prove valuable in reducing ethnic and social tension between the centre and peripheral regions.

A graduate from Qinghua university, a premier institute of the nation, Hu is not a hardliner like Mao and Deng. During his tenure in Tibet, Hu conscientiously researched Sino-Indian relations which leads to the hope that his coming into power will boost the developing ties between the two nations. "Hu may prove to be more suave than Jiang and Li on the contentious border issue," said Chen, a research fellow at Peking university.

The standing committee of the party's central politburo generally has seven members. Though Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, Li Ruihuan, Li Lanqing and Wen Jiabao will remain; two new faces -- Li Changchun and Ceng Qinghong -- will be introduced in 2002.

Li Ruihuan, a former carpenter, currently chairman of the people's political consultative committee, will fill the post of NPC chairman vacated by Li Peng. The current deputy premier, Li Lanqing will occupy Li Ruihuan's post as chairman of the consultative committee.

Wen Jiabao will become the first deputy premier. The other two prospective deputy premiers, instead of the current three, will be Wu Bangguo and Zhou Jiakang.

Meanwhile, Jiang's retirement package illustrates the dilemma faced by men who have to step out of the spotlight of power. This, apparently, is the reason he will continue as chairman of the prestigious military commission.

Perhaps, that also explains why 'Former President of India' is painted below R Venkataraman's name at his home. A less elevated Southeast Asian diplomat, James Fu Chiao Sian's visiting card describes him as 'Former press secretary to former prime minister of Singapore'!

Yukteshwar Kumar teaches Chinese at Visva Bharati. A Nehru scholar, he is currently researching Sino-Indian ties at Peking University.

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