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China: Hu Consolidates Power

  • Jeremy Bransten

Chinese President Hu Jintao yesterday took over leadership of the military from his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, marking the end of a two-year transfer of power in the world's most populous nation. Hu now holds China's three top posts: the Communist Party leadership, the presidency, and the central military commission chairmanship. What will he do with his newly acquired status?

Prague, 20 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- On paper, 61-year-old Hu Jintao has now accumulated more power at a younger age than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

At the end of a four-day Communist Party plenum yesterday, the state-run Xinhua news agency issued a long-expected announcement that Jiang Zemin had transferred his last major post to his successor.

Analysts do not expect any sudden shift in domestic or foreign policy following this generational change, but they do believe Hu will push for gradual reforms -- especially in economic policy.

The social cost of China's rapid capitalist-style growth, which has brought great wealth but has also led to greater disparities in income, is a concern that worries Hu Jintao and his colleagues. The big question is how much room Hu's team will have to tackle these problems while meeting China's international economic commitments, as Phil Deans, director of the Contemporary China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London told RFE/RL.

"The Jiang Zemin generation of leaders -- the so-called 'third generation' -- were mainly interested in growth, in generating money, in building up foreign-currency reserves, and they weren't too concerned about the negative impacts, whether they were social, economic, or environmental. It does appear that Hu Jintao is much more worried about the losers in the economic reform program to date. However, how much ability he'll have to actually change things is hard to tell. China's entry into the World Trade Organization, for example, will reduce the number of policy levers available to the new leadership," Deans said.

Resistance to reform within the state administration is another obstacle Hu will face. Although China is often seen as a highly centralized authoritarian state, Beijing's control over regional party bosses has slipped in recent years.
"It does appear that Hu Jintao is much more worried about the losers in the economic reform program to date. However, how much ability he'll have to actually change things is hard to tell."


Divisions within the top leadership gave provincial authorities an excuse to stall reforms and anticorruption drives. Now that Hu has assumed the reins of leadership, Beijing will be seen in the provinces as speaking with one voice for the first time in years, Deans explained: "Its very hard for [the leaders in Beijing] to get their decisions to be followed and implemented fully. And when there is factionalism, infighting, obviously this will give space to people lower down in the system to try and avoid what they have to do. More consolidation of power under Hu Jintao may increase the state capacity of the senior leadership and make it easier for them to enforce its regulations."

Hu's control of the military is not expected to be felt immediately, although the position will allow him to make staff changes. "The importance of Hu taking over as chair of the military commission we'll really see only as time passes," Deans said. "What this position will do is give Hu the ability to appoint senior military figures to important posts and it's really through his ability to control personnel appointments that Hu Jintao will begin to be able to exercise more control over the policy and direction that the military follows."

In connection with the military, foreign observers will be watching to see if Beijing moves to reduce tensions that have built up with Taiwan in recent months. Following the reelection of the island's pro-sovereignty President Chen Shui-Bian in March, the two sides exchanged a volley of bitter rhetoric, with Beijing threatening to use force if Taiwan moved to declare formal independence.

Hu has not directly addressed the issue of future ties with Taiwan. But in a number of speeches he has spoken about China's increasing power on the world stage as a "peaceful rise" -- leading some to interpret this as a sign that hawkish voices in Beijing will be muted.

Speaking from the Taiwanese capital Taipei, Andrew Yang, director of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, told Reuters he expects some softening in Beijing's style, if not substance, once key political contests are over in the next few months.

"I think China will probably wait for the end of the [legislative] election in Taiwan in December, and wait for the result of the U.S. election, revise and review their policy by early next year. Generally speaking, I think Hu will be more moderate and flexible, but his position over Taiwan will still be very firm," Yang said.

The next congress of China's Communist Party -- the main forum for setting national policy -- is not due until 2007, so any changes from Beijing until then are expected to come in subtle, incremental steps.
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