Gathering Places


Jiang moves China forward
with orderly succession


HONG KONG >> The 16th congress of the Chinese communist party marks a turning point. For the first time since the establishment of the People's Republic of China, an older generation of leaders has voluntarily turned over the reins of power to a younger generation.

The late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping sought to initiate this process by instituting retirement ages. However, it was difficult for him to persuade other officials, often younger than he, to retire when he himself was not retired. But Deng did what he could by refusing to accept the top positions in the party or government, contenting himself with the position of vice premier.

An elderly Chinese man stood last Tuesday near busts of former Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong and current President Jiang Zemin at an exhibition in Beijing's military museum.

Although President Jiang Zemin will have to step down from the presidency next March at the expiration of his second term, there was no requirement for him to step down as party leader -- a much more powerful position. But a growing convention, established by Jiang himself five years ago, provides that those over the age of 70 should not be given another term, and Jiang has abided by this unwritten rule.

By doing this, he has moved China forward. If Jiang had refused to step down, China would have returned to the era of Chairman Mao Zedong, when leaders served for life. It is not surprising that, at the close of the congress, the 2,100 delegates paid their respects to the 76-year-old Jiang and his five associates on the standing committee of the Politburo, all of whom were stepping down, for the "breadth of their political vision and sterling integrity."

By and large, the new leaders are in their late 50s or early 60s. The oldest member of the new standing committee is Luo Gan, who is 67. China has not had such a youthful leadership since the early years of the People's Republic in the 1950s.

It remains to be seen, of course, how well the new leadership, headed by Hu Jintao, will conduct itself. But on Friday morning, when he introduced his new colleagues to the international media, Hu appeared fully confident that he and his colleagues were up to the job.

Many commentators have noted that the new, nine-member standing committee is packed with supporters of Jiang. This is not surprising, since no doubt Jiang would want like-minded younger people to carry on the task of running the country. But just because they were close to Jiang doesn't mean they will do his bidding after he is gone.

As yet, it is still unclear the extent to which Jiang himself will attempt to manipulate the levers of power. He held three key posts before the party congress: party general secretary, state president and head of the military. He has now given up the party post and, in march, will step down from the presidency. However, he has just been re-elected as chairman of the party's Central Military Commission.

Deng, too, held on to the position of chairman of the military commission after giving up all his other party and state posts. Jiang may do the same and retain this position for a couple of years.

However, there is another possibility. Jiang, in addition to being chairman of the party's military commission, is also chairman of a parallel body within the government, the state's central military commission. That is a position that he will retain at least until the National People's Congress meets in March. Stepping down from the party commission now would lead to the incongruous position of the two commissions being headed by different people for a four-month period.

So, even if Jiang's intention is to give up all his official posts, he may feel constrained to keep the party military commission chairmanship until March, when he can give up both that and the state military commission post at the same time.

Jiang is keenly aware of his position in history. The party has now incorporated his "Three Represents" theory into its constitution, ensuring that Jiang will be regarded as virtually on the same level as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Whether he attempts to hang onto formal power by keeping his chairmanship of the military commission will certainly affect the way he is regarded by historians.

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

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