New leadership but no power shift for China

 

CHINA: The Chinese Community Party is due to appoint a new leadership this weekend. Jasper Becker in Beijing examines the candidates. . .and thestratagems of this opaque political culture

The streets may be full of red banners but as the Chinese Communist Party tomorrow holds its most important conclave for years, its leader, Jiang Zemin, is showing his true colours.

Thirteen years ago, President Jiang came to power during the crushing of the democracy protests and led a vicious campaign against "capitalists", imprisoning many who had been cautiously admitted into the party by his liberal predecessor, Zhao Ziyang.

Since then, he has swung full circle and has forced the party to agree both to recruit capitalists into its ranks and accept a full-scale privatisation of state enterprises.

The constitution still describes the Communist Party - the world's largest political movement, with 60 million members - as the revolutionary vanguard in a "dictatorship of the proletariat".

All year Jiang Zemin's bespectacled face has beamed benevolently from giant hoardings around the country to urge this nation of peasant farmers to study his new interpretation of Marxism - obscurely named The Three Represents.

The new amendment turns the party into the representative of the entire nation, rather than just one class. "Sooner rather than later, the party will have to change its name too," predicts one middle-ranking party official.

Jiang, who is now poised to retire from some or all of his posts at the congress, has managed to persuade the party to jettison many other fundamental policies.

He has steered it away from a drive to head a coalition of anti-American nations, and persuaded the military to drop plans to attack Taiwan. Despite all the rhetoric against Taiwan, the two sides are moving closer together and the next 12 months may even see the two Chinas opening directing shipping and air links for the first time since 1949.

"Jiang is a great actor, good at saying one thing and doing another," said an Asian diplomat.

As the party leadership goes through the motions of "electing" a new leadership at the congress, observers are now hunting for clues about the prospects for genuine political reform.

Jiang has dealt ruthlessly with the leaders of China's fledgling Democracy Party. Most are in jail or in exile and the issue remains China's greatest taboo.

"Somehow the CCP has stumbled into the 21st century with just the same Leninist organisation that it was born with 82 years ago," observed a Western diplomat.

The last party leader to grasp the nettle of political change, Zhao Ziyang, is still alive but disappeared into house arrest just before the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre.

Yet the 16th Party Congress, the largest reshuffle since 1989 and the first peaceful handover of power in living memory, gives a new generation the opportunity to try again.

Around half the top posts in the country - ministers, provincial governors, city mayors - have been reshuffled, pushing out those over 70 and putting the so-called "fourth generation" leadership into the top slots.

Most are men in their 40s and 50s, who did Chairman Mao's bidding as fanatical Red Guards, then worked as labourers in the countryside before returning to finish their education in the universities that reopened after his death.

These men - and a very few women - are now deeply committed to turning China into an aggressive high-tech market economy but they have been handpicked by their elders to keep the party in power.

"Many people think we have to wait until the fifth generation, the ones who have gone to study in America, before anything really changes," argues former political dissident Ren Wanding.

The designated heir of Jiang Zemin - his deputy in the party and the military - is an obscure party apparatchik, Hu Jintao. At 59, he is hardly young but despite a decade at the top has never given an interview or voiced an opinion that strayed from the party line.

His popular nickname is "sunzi" or grandson, for his ability to suck up to the party gerontocracy.

It was this aged but still belligerent cabal of old men who ousted two party leaders - Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang - who in the 1980s had tried to start some vaguely articulated political reforms. Popularly dubbed the "immortals" - a reference to Taoist sages - these party elders had given up their official posts but as the "Central Advisory Commission" could exert their will and crush any upstart "bourgeois liberals".

The commission has since been disbanded but in many senses the party dead still rule from the tomb.

Well before Deng Xiaoping died in 1997, Deng had appointed Jiang Zemin as his successor and had nominated Hu Jintao - on the recommendation of the party elders - the next in line as the standard bearer of the "fourth generation".

What exactly Hu did to deserve this trust is not known. He was a Party Youth League organiser during the Cultural Revolution when students fought pitched battles at Qinghua University, the breeding ground for top party leaders, but fought against the radicals.

After a stint as a labourer in desolate Gansu province, he won the trust of revolutionary elder Song Ping, then the province's leader, who admired his near photographic memory.

Song Ping was one of the party's hardliners who during the 1980s cracked down on "bourgeois liberals" and who promoted his protégé to key posts. Hu was Party Secretary of Tibet when martial law was declared in 1989 after pro-independence riots.

Jiang Zemin has not dared stray from the verdict of late party elders like Song Ping but in the past year he has packed the upper ranks of the party apparatus with his men, under the control of his right hand man - Zeng Qinghong.

Zeng Qinghong, reputedly much cleverer than Jiang, is to be elevated into the party's most powerful body, the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, and may turn out to be Jiang's de facto successor .

Jiang is likely to hand over the empty title of head of state to Hu Jintao and the general secretaryship of the party but may hold on to the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, the post Deng Xiaoping held on to.

The real uncertainty is whether the newly retiring generation of leaders will form another "Central Advisory Commission", perhaps called a "National Security Council", which could block any chance of political change.

Observers also wonder how Li Peng, the party's number two and still the most hated man in China for his role in 1989, could risk relinquishing power without becoming the target of an anti-corruption campaign.

Li Peng is thought to have obtained guarantees before promising to retire and placed his own man, Luo Gan, to control the police and security machinery in the new line-up.

Many foreign investors are loath to see the current Premier, Zhu Rongji - the number three in the hierarchy - step down after just one term because he pushed the party into joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

He won't relinquish his post officially until next March at the National People's Congress but his successor, Wen Jiabao, has already taken over his responsibilities.

Wen Jiabao is thought to be a liberal who was seen at Zhao Ziyang's side on his last public visit to the Tiananmen students during their hunger strike. Moreover, he is pro-market and something of an environmentalist.

In preparing the new line-up, Jiang has done exactly what he has been supremely - and unexpectedly - good at for the past 13 years, balancing the different factions in the party.

Under Mao, the party was torn apart in what came close to violent civil war and under Deng, the divisions led directly to Tiananmen.

It is this talent which allows Jiang to hope to remain in control whether he officially retires from all his posts or not.

On the face of it, the prospects for genuine political reform look bleak but Jiang, who has changed his position on so much else, could still be the man to take the initiative.

If he is not, then it is unlikely that the "fourth generation" will dare to do so without him.