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Saturday, March 22, 2003

Economy top priority for new leadership


HONG KONG -- The two-week session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, which ended Tuesday, finished the political transition begun by the 16th Party Congress in November.

As expected, Hu Jintao, who succeeded Jiang Zemin as party leader in November, also took over his position as head of state on Saturday. But Jiang is by no means powerless, since he was re-elected to a five-year term as chairman of the state Military Affairs Commission, confirming him in effect as the commander in chief of the armed forces.

There are now two power centers in China, a situation that is inherently abnormal and potentially unstable. In the short term, it may be useful to have Jiang available to handle such major issues as relations with the United States and Taiwan. In the long run, however, it would be helpful if Jiang were to gracefully fade into the background and let the younger generation take charge.

Jiang, of course, is following the precedent established by Deng Xiaoping, who remained China's paramount leader even after he gave up his state and party posts, retaining only the position of military chief. That was an unsatisfactory arrangement, and was meant to be temporary. After all, Deng, like Jiang today, was by that point technically only an ordinary party member, having even given up his seat on the Central Committee. He had engineered the retirement of a whole generation of party elders, letting them serve on a Central Advisory Commission for a few years before abolishing that body.

His goal was to create a system under which people would retire after reaching a certain age. But he couldn't let go completely, either because he wasn't fully confident of the younger men he had picked, or because they themselves were unsure that they could manage without his guidance.

However, shortly after the June 4, 1989, military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protesters, Deng finally gave up even his military position before the expiration of the five-year term.

Jiang today is in a similar position. He, too, would like to see China evolve into a normal country. But again, either because he doesn't entirely trust the fourth generation of leaders or because he himself finds it difficult to give up all power, he is hanging on to this last position.

Actually, it can be argued that this state of affairs is contrary to Communist Party doctrine, which states that the People's Liberation Army is the party's army, not the state's army, and must be controlled by the party and be loyal to the party. The party, the late Chairman Mao Zedong said, must control the gun, not the other way around.

How then can someone who is technically not a party leader -- who is neither on the Politburo nor even the Central Committee -- control the armed forces?

The political transition is unlikely to result in major policy changes, since there has been a general consensus for the last quarter century on what China's direction should be. The top priority is economic development.

The country is eager to take its place among the world's developed countries by the middle of this century and to play an international role commensurate with its size and power. Thus it is not surprising that political commentators in Taiwan are predicting no change in the cross-Strait relationship as a result of the leadership changes.

Similarly, there is unlikely to be much change in domestic policy, although raising the standard of living of people in the countryside and in the poverty-stricken western regions is likely to be given a higher priority.

In external policy, relations with the U.S. will remain China's single most important bilateral relationship. China will cooperate with the U.S. in the war against terrorism and on other issues where the two countries' interests coincide.

However, there is little likelihood that China will accommodate Washington by putting pressure on North Korea to abrogate its nuclear program, even though Beijing itself prefers a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

The special status of North Korea was made evident when Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, reported that foreign leaders had sent congratulatory telegrams to Hu upon his election as president.

Topping the list of foreign dignitaries was Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader. His name was followed by those of 14 other world leaders, including the kings of Cambodia and Nepal, the emperor of Japan, and the prime ministers of Japan and Singapore. Apparently, no American or South Korean leader sent a congratulatory message.

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


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