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China: Communists Broaden Party to Boost Economy, Keep Political Control

  • Charles Recknagel

The Chinese Communist Party has concluded its congress in Beijing after ushering in a new leadership of younger faces and recommitting itself to a policy of speedy economic growth while keeping strict political control. The party also has said it will open its ranks to the entrepreneurs and professionals once considered class enemies. RFE/RL looks at the week-long congress and its significance.

Prague, 15 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Chinese Communist Party likes to hold its proceedings with an air of majesty, mystery, and -- some observers might say -- maddening inscrutability. Its 16th Congress was no exception.

The week-long congress ended today in Beijing's Great Hall of the People with the party unveiling a dramatically changed -- and much younger -- top leadership, with all the impassivity of a practiced magician.

The leaders, who make up the Politburo Standing Committee led by newly named party chief Hu Jintao, filed out from behind a lacquered screen to take their places on a stage marked with numbered circles indicating each man's respective rank.

Hu then gave a brief, 12-minute speech to the press and assembled dignitaries, while his eight subordinates listened with arms glued to their sides. Summarizing the week of closed-door party sessions, Hu -- who previously was Chinese vice president -- said: "It has been a great success. The congress has been one of unity, victory, and endeavor."

Then he launched into specifics, employing the abstruse vocabulary the party has developed over its more than five decades in power: "The 16th Party Congress has put the important thought of 'Three Represents' alongside Marxism, Leninism, Mao Zedong thought, and Deng Xiaoping theory as the guiding philosophy that our party will adhere to for a long time to come. This is a historic decision, it also is a historic contribution that has clearly set the direction of our endeavor."

This was the moment for China observers to pay close attention as -- through the deliberately dizzying, almost liturgical swirl of ideological references -- the key changes made during the congress emerged.

What Hu called the 'Three Represents' is a doctrine put forth by his mentor, Chinese President Jiang Zemin. That doctrine includes having the Chinese Communist Party reach out beyond its traditional base of workers and farmers to also bring in entrepreneurs and professionals, people whom the party has historically considered class enemies.

Hu's announcement that the party will now begin broadening its base marks a major milestone for China because the step will bind the country's capitalists to the ruling Communists while at the same time binding the party ever more closely to market economics.

The step comes at a time when China is enjoying an enviable economic growth rate that saw its gross domestic product increase by close to 8 percent during the first three quarters of this year. Exports over the same period grew more than 20 percent and foreign investment is expected to top $50 billion this year.

But while China's economy is doing well -- particularly for a time of global economic malaise -- China still faces major economic challenges that make opening the party to capitalists a key part of its strategy for fostering economic growth while keeping strict political control.

These problems include money-losing state industries shedding millions of workers in a drive to modernize and become profitable while farmers -- the other traditional backbone of the party -- are seeing the gap between their standard of living and that of city dwellers grow steadily larger. The party counts on the energy of the entrepreneurs and professionals to help create the new jobs needed to keep the economy growing sufficiently to satisfy both the workers and the farmers and keep the society stable.

As the Communist Party opens its ranks to entrepreneurs, the party also opted during its 16th Congress to move a younger generation of its cadres into top positions.

Hu, 59, takes over as party chairman from Jiang Zemin, who is 17 years older. Hu is also widely expected to assume Jiang's second post as Chinese president sometime later this year. However, it is not known whether Jiang will also give up his third post as chairman of the military, or to what extent he will still wield influence, if not control, while Hu solidifies his position at the top.

Like Hu, the other members of the Politburo Standing Committee also are younger men moving up. To make way for the new, now nine-member committee, the full former seven-member committee, excepting Hu, stepped down.

Popular Chinese reaction to the developments is difficult to glean from the state-controlled press, which announces but never comments upon leadership changes. The new leaders were elected in total secrecy by a small group at the top of the party hierarchy in what many historians are calling Communist China's first transition of power without purges or chaos.

Reuters television spoke with several people yesterday as the congress concluded. One man, Sun Chengzhong, said he was happy with the way socialism was evolving in China, "In the 13 years of [President] Jiang's leadership, we have developed in a new way, especially concerning the evolving state of socialism, we have solved the problem of enough food for everyone."

With the carefully choreographed ritual of the party congress -- which takes place every five years -- now complete, the party returns to its largely secretive work of ruling the world's most populous country.

As the nine members of the new Politburo Standing Committee left their numbered places on the stage, a woman using tongs handed each man a yellow cloth to mop his brow. Then China's new leaders disappeared again behind the lacquered screen.

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