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Sunday, Sept. 26, 2004

Curtain falls on China's 'strongman' era

HONG KONG -- The decision by 78-year-old former President Jiang Zemin to step down as head of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Military Commission in favor of 61-year-old Hu Jintao, his successor as party and state leader, is a milestone in China's political development, marking as it does the completion of the first peaceful political transition in the 55-year history of the People's Republic of China. But now the hard work begins.

The death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976 was followed by a palace coup in which his widow, Jiang Qing, and several of her closest political associates were arrested. This paved the way for Deng Xiaoping, who had twice been purged by Mao, to return to power by shunting aside Hua Guofeng, Mao's chosen heir. Deng scrapped class struggle, which had been so close to Mao's heart, and focused on economic development, which led to a period of rapid growth for China that is now in its 26th year.

The pragmatic Deng tried to rid China of such practices as lifelong tenure in office and insisted on term limits and a retirement age. He picked first Hu Yaobang and then Zhao Ziyang as his political successor, but found each man too liberal for his taste. Finally, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square military crackdown, he chose Jiang Zemin to be leader of the third generation of the Chinese revolution. Deng also chose Hu Jintao as the leader of the fourth generation.

Now, the transition from third to fourth generation is complete, having started in November 2002, when Hu took over from Jiang as party leader, followed by the presidency in 2003. The key question now is how the next leader of China is to be produced, since Deng is no longer with us and neither Jiang nor Hu is a strong man in the Deng mold who can single-handedly pick a new leader and make it stick.

This means that Hu's successor, who will have to emerge within the next decade -- Hu cannot serve beyond 2013 as president even if he stays for a second term -- may well be chosen through a more democratic process or, at the very least, will be the result of a collective decision. While there are no term limits for party posts, Jiang has since assuming power insisted on retirement at the age of 70, even though that was a rule that he himself ignored.

The era of strongman rule in China is over and a much more conventional process of choosing leaders and sharing power is at hand. No doubt, Jiang will still be influential but Hu will be much more his own man than he was before.

There is unlikely to be immediate, major changes in policy. It is known that while Jiang favored development of coastal cities, Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao give more emphasis to developing the interior. But on issues like the United States, Taiwan or Hong Kong, there is unlikely to be major change, though Hu will have more flexibility in handling such issues than before.

In foreign affairs, Hu may well be more assertive than Jiang, but that will be more a reflection of China's strength today vs. even 10 or 15 years ago. Hu will seek to maintain good relations with virtually all major powers, in particular the U.S. and Europe. However, the Taiwan issue will, as before, constrain the development of relations with Washington.

Closer to home, attention will be paid to mending ties with major neighbors, such as South Korea and Japan. Relations with both countries have been strained recently because of differences over historical issues. China will also pay close attention to countries such as Russia, India and Australia.

Jiang's retirement removes an anomaly because it contradicted the dictum that the party must control the gun. Over the last 15 years, Jiang had made significant contributions to China. His theory of the "three represents" is often ridiculed but it does help to justify allowing entrepreneurs into the communist party.

Hu can now consolidate his position. The Central Committee, in addition to accepting Jiang's resignation, also said in a communique that it was vital for the party to enhance its ability to govern. In fact, the party earlier this month hosted a meeting of Asian political parties to draw on the experience of noncommunist ruling parties in Asia. Jiang's departure makes Hu's job of running a country of 1.3 billion people just a tad easier.

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

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