Saturday, October 20, 2007
Hu's in Charge?
By Willy Lam
19 October 2007
The Wall Street Journal Asia
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Avid China watchers have been closely following the ongoing 17th Party Congress for clues about the leadership succession in 2012. But the outcome of that process will have important implications for the rest of the world even before President Hu Jintao hands the reins to his successor.
Mr. Hu's apparent failure to command a solid majority in the new Politburo Standing Committee -- China's nine-man highest governing council -- to be endorsed by the Congress is a signal that he's wielding less influence than his predecessor Jiang Zemin at the height of the latter's power. This will render the cautious current leader even less likely to take bold reform measures, especially political liberalization. He may also take tougher stands on Taiwan and Hong Kong to marshal the support of the generals and to solidify his grip on Party, state and military.
Mr. Hu's weakened position is most evident in the fact that he was able to promote only one of his proteges to the PSC -- Li Keqiang, party secretary of Liaoning province. And due to resistance from incumbent PSC members and party elders such as Mr. Jiang, Mr. Hu was unable to designate Mr. Li as his successor. That job will go instead to Mr. Li's counterpart in Shanghai, Xi Jinping. Messrs. Li and Xi, aged 52 and 54 respectively, are the only members of the so-called Fifth Generation (officials now in their late 40s to late 50s) to join the supreme decision-making body this time around.
It's a fairly safe bet that once the new PSC officially convenes on Monday, only Premier Wen Jiabao and Mr. Li will consistently vote with Mr. Hu. The current president's main opposition will come from the remnants of the Shanghai Clique now led by outgoing Vice President Zeng Qinghong. Two Zeng cronies, Zhou Yongkang and He Guoqiang, are joining the PSC to take charge of the crucial portfolios of law and order, and corruption-fighting. Heir-apparent Mr. Xi, as well as three other incumbent PSC members who are staying for one more term -- Wu Bangguo, Jia Qinglin and Li Changchun -- will likely vacillate between the two sides.
In practice this means that while still being indisputably "first among equals" in the new PSC, Mr. Hu lacks the clout to dictate policy on his own volition. Thus he will have to cleave to noncontroversial formulas, particularly regarding the risky area of political reform.
This is evident in his much-awaited political report to the 17th Party Congress on Monday, which said practically nothing about power-sharing, elections or media freedom -- despite Mr. Hu's pledge in the report that Chinese have the right to "implement democratic elections [and] democratic decision-making according to law." However, the president emphasized that the purpose of political reform was to "provide the political and legal guarantees for the long reign and perennial stability of the party and state." He also called for tougher measures to combat dissent and other "activities relating to separatism, infiltration and sabotage."
Quite a few delegates were also surprised that the president four times saluted the ultraconservative "Four Cardinal Principles," which were cited by Deng Xiaoping to justify the People's Liberation Army's crackdown on the 1989 student movement. Those principles -- Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought, strict party leadership, the socialist road and the "proletariat dictatorship" -- are at odds with the current trajectory of China's economic development. Since coming to power in 2002, Mr. Hu had seldom resuscitated such concepts from the ancien regime. The fact that he's doing so now may be best read as an attempt to persuade the party's conservative wing of his orthodox bona fides.
In a similar vein, Mr. Hu had precious little to offer even concerning the circumscribed area of "democracy within the party." He vowed to "gradually extend the parameters for the direct election of members of the leadership corps of grassroots Party organizations." Yet there was no possibility for competitive elections to pick senior cadres such as Politburo members or the general secretary. This places China's Party behind even the Vietnamese Communist Party, which last year undertook much bolder experiments in "intraparty democracy."
Nor will Mr. Hu's efforts -- both rhetorical and real -- to boost his credibility end at China's borders. Partly to consolidate his "tough guy" image and partly to win the loyalty of the top military brass, Mr. Hu is expected to further rattle the saber in relations across the Taiwan Strait.
Such a stance would play well within the upper echelons of Party and PLA leadership. Senior cadres have for the past two months characterized Taipei's decision to hold a referendum on joining United Nations as "playing with fire." To be sure, most of Mr. Hu's discussion of Taiwan in his address to the Congress focused on cementing flesh-and-blood ties with Taiwanese. He even held out the possibility of signing a formal "peace accord" with Taiwan. At the same time, however, he warned that China would "never allow" any separatist attempts to succeed. Mr. Hu noted ominously that the PLA would "do a good job in preparations for military struggle."
The president's line on Hong Kong was likewise harsh. He made no mention of efforts by residents of the Special Administrative Region to seek democratic elections. Instead, Mr. Hu warned that Beijing would "resolutely counter efforts by foreign powers to interfere in Hong Kong affairs." It is understood that Beijing cadres think that "American and British influence" was behind the surprise decision by Anson Chan, a popular former civil servant with pro-liberal tendencies, to run in a forthcoming by-election for the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's parliament.
Despite his apparent losses in the future Party leadership stakes, Mr. Hu is still far from a lame duck. In his keynote speech to the Congress, he called for "thought liberation" four times, and the word "innovation" appeared about a dozen times in the 30,000-word report, referring both to reform in general and to high-tech inventions. So it seems his orthodox retrenchment isn't total. And three of his putative theoretical breakthroughs -- the concepts of "scientific development," as well as building a "harmonious society" and a "harmonious world" -- are set to be enshrined in the Party charter at the end of this Congress.
In the absence of political reform, however, the Party-cum-military apparatus could resort to what Party publicists euphemistically call "nonpeaceful means" to enforce harmony both at home and in China's neighborhood -- and Mr. Hu's shifting power within the Party might constrain his ability to oppose these elements. The likelihood of the fast-rising quasisuperpower flexing its muscles has been enhanced by its top leader's apparent need to buttress his authority.
Mr. Lam is a Hong Kong-based China scholar and author of "Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era" (M.E. Sharpe, 2006).
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