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China: Party Plenum and supreme leader Hu Jintao


Paper 1128                                                    28.09.2004

Guest Column-by D.S. Rajan                                     

 The process of transferring power to a younger ‘ Fourth Generation’  leadership in China is now complete and Hu Jintao (61) is now unmistakably the supreme party, military and state leader of the country, which is well on its way to becoming a dominant world power . The resignation of ‘ Third Generation’ leader Jiang Zemin(78) from his last remaining party post of the Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman and his succession by Hu Jintao in that position, were formalized in the  recently held landmark Fourth Plenum of the 16th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee (Beijing, September 16-19, 2004). It might be recalled that the process   began during the 16th CCP Congress held in November 2002 with Hu taking over from Jiang  as Party General Secretary. Subsequently, Hu succeeded Jiang as President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) during  a session of the country’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), in March 2003.  Hu’s taking over as Chairman of CMC of the PRC (a parallel government setup with membership identical to that of the Party CMC) during the next NPC session in March 2005, will only be a formality. 

 Despite some speculations in the foreign media(Straits Times,Singapore) about a Jiang-Hu power struggle in the Pre-Plenum period, based on different background given to a joint Hu-Deng photograph by mainland media, the power transfer appears to have been smooth. In his resignation letter of September 1,carried by the official media only on September 20,Jiang revealed that his step was out of ‘ careful consideration’ At an enlarged CMC session (September 20), he described the handing over as ‘ regular and natural’. Hu praised Jiang’s  ‘broadmindedness’ and thoughts of ‘Three represents’ as well as national  defence,  in his speech to the Plenum .The two leaders appeared together in meeting the Plenum delegates on September 19. 

The Plenum’s selection of  improving the party’s ability to govern as its central theme was not surprising. It has come at a time when the CCP and the government were coming under increasing pressure to tackle serious socio-economic problems arising out of negative aspects of  reforms such as rural-urban divide, gap between advanced and backward regions, unemployment and corruption.

The Vice-President of the Central Party School Yu Yunyao admitted prior to Plenum that reforms are in a critical stage, deep rooted problems have emerged which could thwart social stability and promoting reforms while consolidating the party’s ruling status is a double challenge. How to integrate party leadership and governance appears to have thus become a key question.  

 The official media carried (September 26) prominent features of the 36-page Plenum Decision document on ‘Enhancement of the Party’s Governance Capability’ (full text not yet made public). Hinting at the possibilities of some purges inside the party, at middle and lower levels in particular, the document accused some leading cadres of lacking ideological attainments and ability to govern according to law as well as sense of responsibility and political integrity. Corruption remains quite serious in some areas, it admitted. On integration of party and administration, it added that  the Party will take steps to strengthen its leading role in People’s Congresses and governments.   It will guarantee carrying out of democratic election, policy making and supervision by people according to law. In an apparent reference by implication to the activities of pro-democracy elements abroad, Fa Lungong etc,the document described the current period as the reform’s critical stage when “new situations and problems have mushroomed and hostile forces are pursuing their strategic attempts to westernize and separate China”. It called upon cadres to draw lessons from the success and failure of other ruling parties in the world. Other steps for capability enhancement cited in the document were introduction of ‘new practices’ for self-improvement of socialism, giving top priority to development by following the ‘scientific  concept of putting people first', thereby addressing the issues concerning agriculture, rural areas and farmers, besides implementing strategies to develop the backward regions in Western, North East and Central China as well as areas inhabited by minorities and border areas. Significantly, the objective behind the enhancement was described as realization of ‘three important tasks’- modernization, reunification of the country and maintaining world peace and common development. Upholding of stability of Hongkong and Macao were described as ‘brand new subjects of governance’ As signs towards introduction of some degree of democracy in party elections, the document emphasised the need to improve the inner party election system by appropriately expanding the scope and ratio of multi-candidate recommendation and elections, allowing  no  arbitrary decision making by head of any party committee. 

As an important organizational measure concerning the military, the CMC was reconstituted during the Plenum, making the body more representational. Four new members and one Vice-Chairman were added to the CMC, increasing its total strength to 11,as against 8 in the outgoing. Various Military Regions including those of Lanzhou and Chengdu, relevant to Indian borders, the strategic force of Second Artillery, Navy and Air Force are represented in the new body. The intention seems to be the creation of a CMC capable of attending to the task of military modernization and managing crises, for e.g., the  emerging situation concerning Taiwan Straits. Other decisions taken include addition of two full members to the Central Committee and dismissal of former Minister of Land and Resources Tian Fengshan from the Party on corruption charges. 

It was emphasized in the Plenum that enhancement of Party’s governing capabilities serves the interest of the CCP’s  absolute control over the army. The concept of ‘ Party commanding the Gun’ is not new, but repeated emphasis on the same in recent years raises some doubts. In the year 2001, some party organs criticized arguments appearing then in favour of the Party loosening its control over state affairs, including army. It is possible such arguments have not died down and hence the emphasis. 

Is Hu Jintao now the supreme leader of China? The official media insist that the Fourth Generation leadership will only be collective (Liberation Army Daily, September 22). Unlike Jiang who was given the status of ‘core’ of the Third Generation leadership, Hu Jintao continues to be called the ‘Party General Secretary’ only. The Plenum’s Resolution has only asked for “rallying round the Party Central Committee with Hu Jintao as General secretary” (not ‘core'). Nevertheless, future trends in this regard may need a watch, as a People’s Daily item (September 21,quoting ‘China Daily'), has described Hu’s elevation as strengthening his status as ‘ core ‘ of a new generation leadership. 

Will there be any basic policy shift under Hu Jintao ’s new  regime ? The answer seems to be no. But tactical shifts in emphasis, from time to time, are possible. In the Plenum, Hu reportedly did not touch the often  raised issue of stability Vs reforms. The Plenum document above has also avoided the issue. In contrast, Jiang’s address to the 16th Congress tended to stress on stability being above everything else. In matters of development, Hu seems to have introduced some fresh nuances. With Hu in charge now, his ‘people first’ policy launched in the post-Party Congress period, focusing on the need for achieving a balanced socio-economic development through job creation, improving the welfare system and narrowing the urban-rural divide, may be brought to the center stage. The Plenum document’s description of the  ‘ people first ‘ policy as a scientific concept to be followed., confirms such a trend. In the field of foreign relations, both Hu and Premier Wen, since the end 2003, are promoting a new concept called   “China’s peaceful rise”. As per this concept, China “will not stand in the way of any one else, will not pose threat to any one and ‘the peaceful rise’ will not be realized at any one’s expense”. However, the omission of reference to ‘peaceful rise’ concept in the Plenum Decision indicates a lack of consensus among the leaders on this concept. ‘Peaceful rise’ would entail good relations with developed nations in the post-September 11 period, in combating terrorism and some leaders may think the same would at the same time mean not being required to be resolute in opposing threats to national security coming from hostile forces in the West. Jiang was reportedly not in favour of the concept. .In  such an atmosphere, the ‘peaceful rise’ concept is possibly now being downplayed. In this context, the Plenum Document’s heavy stress on giving first place to safeguarding national sovereignty and State Security as both traditional and non traditional security threats face China, seem to represent an alternate line. On Taiwan issue also, Hu and Jiang seem to follow different approaches. Hu appears to follow a soft approach at this point of time on Taiwan.. His speech at the enlarged session of the CMC did not refer to the term ‘use of force’. The Plenum document has also only focused on peaceful reunification and stopping meddling by foreign forces, without referring to the the need for ‘use of force’ for reunification.. Jiang, on the other hand, stressed  on the same occasion that the PRC will not make any commitment not use force to reunify Taiwan and that the same is a political principle. 

(The writer is a Research Fellow in the Observer Research Foundation, Chennai  chapter)