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Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2002

Chinese politics still a personality game


HONG KONG -- The 16th congress of the Chinese Communist Party, being held this week in Beijing, marks a pivotal period in Chinese history. For the first time since the Communists won the civil war in 1949, power is being transferred without bloodshed or a political upheaval.

The voluntary handover of power by Chinese President Jiang Zemin and other members of his generation to a younger leadership is a step toward the institutionalization of China's political system. It is the culmination of plans laid by the late Deng Xiaoping a decade ago, when he picked the then 49-year-old Hu Jintao for membership in the party's most powerful body, the standing committee of the Politburo, to groom him for leadership.

However, there is still no institution in place to produce the next leader, should Hu falter. Instead, the likelihood is that retired party elders, supposedly without power, would step in with a new candidate. This is what happened in 1986 when Hu Yaobang was removed as party leader, and again in 1989 when Zhao Ziyang was ousted as the party's general secretary and replaced by Jiang.

What counts in Chinese politics is still the force of personality. During the time of Mao Zedong and Deng, people who held such titles as president or party leader did not necessarily hold power, which was often in the hands of individuals without those titles. After all, Deng was China's acknowledged paramount leader at a time when the only position he held was chairman of the Chinese Bridge Association.

It is likely that Jiang, even after he gives up the position of party leader at the congress and the position of state president next March, will still exercise considerable political influence behind the scenes, perhaps through retaining his position as head of the Central Military Commission and through proteges whom he has placed in positions of power. But Jiang, unlike Deng, will not be able to wield power without a power base. In this sense, China is turning into a more normal country, with those who hold titles actually wielding the power that is supposed to go with them.

The fact that Jiang will still be available to assist the younger generation of leaders during a transitional period of two or three years is in itself not alarming. But if Jiang, while in retirement, seeks to run the country from "behind the curtain," that would be a different matter entirely.

Jiang and all other members of the Politburo standing committee above the age of 70 are stepping down at this congress. This is the second congress at which such an unwritten rule is being enforced, the first being five years ago when Jiang apparently proposed such a convention to force his rival, Qiao Shi, into retirement. But Jiang at the time managed to make himself an exception, although he was already 71, promising to step down in five years.

The emergence of such a retirement convention is a step in the right direction. However, there is still no system for the selection of a party leader. What this means is that, five years from now, when Hu Jintao's term ends, it is likely that there will still be no clear rules regarding political succession. Factionalism and political in-fighting are likely to continue to characterize the Chinese political scene.

Of course, the fact that Hu Jintao, the new leader, is only 59 suggests that another succession crisis may not be imminent. However, we can never be sure since both Hu Yaobang and Zhao were removed in mid-term. But, for the good of the party and the country, it is probably unwise to replace a system of lifetime tenure in office with one where the incumbent automatically serves one term after another until retirement age.

How will the next leader, Hu Jintao's successor, be chosen? Will Hu be able to decide? Or will some powerful party elder statesman, such as Jiang, anoint a younger man to replace Hu? The party needs to develop a system whereby a collective body, such as the Central Committee, elects a leader. True, Hu will formally be elected at the plenary session of the new Central Committee after the closing of the party congress. But that will be a mere formality. Everyone knows he owes his position not to the Central Committee or the Congress, but to a man who died more than five years ago: Deng.

Eighty-one years after the founding of the Communist party and 53 years after the establishment of the People's Republic of China, the Chinese political system has still not been institutionalized. Until that day arrives, the party will remain immature and China will be without the political institutions that it needs to function effectively in the 21st century.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.


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