China Hands Off Powers to Next Generation

Times Staff Writer

China put the finishing touches on the smoothest and most sweeping leadership shuffle in five decades of Communist rule today by elevating party chief Hu Jintao to president.

The National People’s Congress elected Hu, 60, to replace Jiang Zemin, 76, in the gigantic Great Hall of the People, a ceremony designed to give a veneer of democracy to a move decided in November at the Communist Party convention. Out of about 3,000 ballots, only four were “no” votes; three people abstained.

Jiang, however, is not giving up all power. In a widely expected move, he was selected to stay on as head of the military. However, the relatively high number of “no” votes, 98, and abstentions, 122, was an unflattering tally considering the congress is a rubber-stamp parliament. The outcome reflected dissatisfaction with the power transition, which essentially leaves the world’s most populous country with two heads of state.

In another sign of possible dissent, Jiang ally Zeng Qinghong was elected vice president, but with 177 “no” votes and 190 abstentions.


“People are looking for a new generation of leaders, and they are looking for a complete transition,” said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago. “The issue is whether there will be unified leadership. It’s delicate in some ways. But given how long they’ve worked together over the years, I don’t anticipate serious problems.”

After the results were announced, Hu made three deep bows to the audience and shook hands with Jiang. When Jiang’s turn came, he didn’t bend, but smiled widely and waved imperiously to the cameras.

Hu was vice president under Jiang. His rise from provincial bureaucrat to the top of the Communist hierarchy had been essentially engineered in the 1990s by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. But it was Hu’s political astuteness and ability to appeal to different party factions that helped him survive Beijing’s back-room power struggles and last-minute horse trading to emerge as president.

Hu and his team will face daunting tasks, including keeping the economy growing amid a global slowdown; easing the burden of overtaxed farmers; boosting pensions for the urban poor; and cleaning up corruption and an antiquated banking system.

Jiang’s retention of the military leadership could complicate Hu’s work. Depending on how Jiang uses his behind-the-scenes power, Hu’s ability to take China in a new direction could be hampered.

While Jiang is keeping a key post, other senior leaders including Premier Zhu Rongji and legislative head Li Peng, both 74, took their final bows during the two-week-long parliamentary meeting that ends next week.

Their positions will be filled by new faces introduced at November’s party congress. Wen Jiabao, 60, currently No. 3 in the pecking order, is expected to inherit Zhu’s job. Vice Premier Wu Bangguo, 61, ranked No. 2 in the party, replaced Li today as parliament chief.

Since taking over in 1989 on the heels of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Jiang’s administration presided over an era of enormous economic growth that made millions of Chinese rich and fostered massive international investment. However, it also generated an avalanche of social problems, including unemployment, corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor.


During his final weeks as president, Jiang focused on world affairs, telephoning global leaders on developments in Iraq and North Korea, and kept a high profile in the state-run news media with his daily presence at legislative sessions. All of these have been considered signs that he’s not ready to leave the limelight.

The big question, analysts say, is whether Jiang will stick around as long as his predecessor, Deng, who called the shots from his 1989 retirement until his death in 1997.

For now, it appears there will be a division of labor, with Hu managing the domestic front. But there, too, Jiang could extend his reach through his allies in the inner sanctum of the Communist Party.

The most formidable is the new vice president, Zeng. The behind-the-scenes power broker, 63, is the son of a revolutionary veteran and is considered Jiang’s hatchet man and alter ego. Their friendship dates to the 1980s, when Jiang was mayor of Shanghai. Zeng later followed Jiang to Beijing, where he helped his political mentor install allies in the national party system.


“He’s really the power behind the throne in Jiang’s reign,” said Orville Schell, a longtime China watcher at UC Berkeley. “We just don’t know what his interaction with Jiang will be like or how much power he will derive from people whom he put into office.”

Some analysts believe that Hu and Zeng may find a way to work together, because both men need to get out of Jiang’s shadow. Zeng may decide that he can accomplish more by being Hu’s trusted lieutenant than by antagonizing him by remaining too close to Jiang.

“Probably Hu gets along with Zeng,” said Cheng Li, author of “China’s Leaders: The New Generation.” “The future depends on their cooperation, not vicious struggle."Although Hu is likely to proceed with caution at first, he has given some signals about the direction he intends to take.

The Qinghua University-educated former engineer spent a good part of his adult life working in some of China’s most impoverished hinterlands, including Gansu and Tibet. Since his appointment as party chief in November, Hu has fashioned himself into a man of the people, visiting farmers and calling attention to the underprivileged.


These are relatively safe issues that Jiang is unlikely to consider controversial, even though the outgoing president made his mark as a champion of the middle class by welcoming entrepreneurs into the Communist Party.

“There’s a consensus in the elite [that] the time has come to do this -- I don’t think Jiang’s against it,” said Andrew Nathan, co-editor of “China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files.”

If Hu wants to experiment with bolder political reforms -- such as more open and accountable government or rule of law -- Zeng may prove a useful ally.

Zeng was the mastermind behind Jiang’s doctrine, known as “the Three Represents.” It initiated a profound ideological shift away from the party’s orthodox Communist roots, liberalizing the organization to the point of allowing it to count capitalists as members.


“In China, everything is almost always up for grabs because the system is changing so rapidly, from what it used to be -- to what? Nobody has an answer to that,” Schell said. “That’s why the leaders have learned to be so blank. Because it’s too dangerous to be clear about where they want to take this country, if in fact they know.”