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China: Communist Party Congress Opens Amid Expectations Of Change

  • Breffni O'Rourke

China's 16th Communist Party Congress opened today in Beijing. More than 2,000 delegates are attending the week-long session, which is expected to approve a major reshuffling in China's leadership. Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who is likely to retire as party chief at the end of the congress, said at today's opener the Communist Party must be at the center of fighting China's challenges.

Prague, 8 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- China's 16th Communist Party Congress got under way in Beijing today, and it is being seen as a key step on the country's path to continuing pro-capitalist reform.

The congress is expected to choose a new generation of leaders, with 76-year-old President Jiang Zemin retiring from the office of party chief in favor of a younger man, probably vice president Hu Jintao. Hu, 59, is considered likely also to take over the presidency from Jiang in the near future.

Adam Ward is a senior researcher with London's Royal Institute of International Affairs. "It's a turning point, in the sense that it's obviously the handing over of offices to a younger generation of people. And much has been made of the fact that they are younger, they come from a different kind of background, that they are more engaged with the outside world. And this has given rise to expectations of policy discontinuity, as well as continuity with what has gone before them," Ward said.

Ward said the congress is also important in that it is meant to demonstrate that China and the Communist Party are capable of a smooth handover of power. "The way in which this process is handled is obviously a key indicator of the basic stability of the political system and the Communist Party in particular, so I think people are looking very closely for signs about China's future in the exact form this transition takes," Ward said.

Certainly the congress comes at a difficult moment in China's economic restructuring, when pro-market reforms have created wealth among some sectors of the urban populations, but thrown others out of work as inefficient factories have closed. The hope, as well as the fears, aroused in the population by the reforms, can be heard in this comment from 26-year-old worker Zhang Yina, who was interviewed by a Western television team at a bookstand. "I work outside Beijing for a state-owned enterprise. I hope that they [at the congress] will break down the old format to create some new policies to let me develop freely. I also hope there will be some protective policies that will be of benefit to us," Zhang said.

In a speech opening the congress, Jiang sought to address exactly that sort of question, the issue of what might be called more political breathing space for China's ordinary citizens. "It is essential to improve the systems of democracy, develop diverse forms of democracy, expand citizens' participation in political affairs in an orderly way, and ensure that the people go in for democratic elections and decision making, exercise democratic management and supervision according to law and enjoy extensive rights and freedoms, and that human rights are respected and guaranteed," Jiang said.

Ward said whatever happens at the congress, it seems impossible now to reverse the broad course of reform toward greater market efficiency. Hong Kong-based analyst Meryl Phang of the MSS International finance house noted the Communists' recent suggestion to have wealthy businessmen join the party. That is a remarkable idea for a Marxist party and has the double advantage of binding capitalists to the party, while binding the party to market methods.

Phang said that the Chinese markets are worried that the presumed new party leader, Hu, does not have the political or economic expertise to take on the massive job of running China. But she said the outgoing leader Jiang Zemin's close confidant Zeng Qing Hong is a more reassuring figure. "From the pace of things that are developing at the moment, you would think that Jiang's right-hand man, Zeng Qing Hong, could be the number-two man in China, which means that Hu Jingtao would have the assistance of Zeng Qing Hong, who is actually a more polished politician than Mr. Hu himself," Phang said.

Phang said such a position for Zeng would be a kind of guarantee that the economic- and political-reform process espoused by Jiang will continue.

Ward noted the party congress comes at a time when China has revealed ambitious plans for regional trade expansion. Beijing last week signed with the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, an agreement to develop a free-trade zone. But Ward sees this more as a political gesture than an economic one. "I wonder how much appetite for further trade liberalization there is really going to be. To an extent, I think this is really aimed at a kind of geostrategic outreach to some of China's neighbors, that China's real preoccupation here is to signal to its neighbors that its desire is for a stable external environment at a time when it does have these difficult domestic political and economic transitions to navigate," Ward said.

The congress is scheduled to last a week.