A transition in China

Published : Oct 08, 2004 00:00 IST

Jiang Zemin and Chinese President Hu Jintao with representatives of the Fourth Plenum of the 16th CPC Central Committee in Beijing on September 19. - XINHUA/AFP

Jiang Zemin and Chinese President Hu Jintao with representatives of the Fourth Plenum of the 16th CPC Central Committee in Beijing on September 19. - XINHUA/AFP

HU JINTAO, the President of China, assumed commanding political authority over the nation's affairs when he became the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Communist Party of China (CPC). He continues to hold the pivotal position as the General Secretary of the CPC.

Until September 19, when he assumed charge at the apex level of the CMC, Hu was the Vice-Chairman of the same body, which was presided over by Jiang Zemin for 15 years. Ever since Hu succeeded Jiang as the CPC General Secretary in November 2002 and also as China's President in March 2003, a change of guard at the helm of the CMC was always on the cards.

An authoritative Chinese source, speaking to Frontline on condition of anonymity, said on September 19 that Hu's elevation to the highest seat of power in the CMC was but a "natural follow-up" to the sequential manner in which he assumed positions at the top. Hu's power and authority over all aspects of China's governance, including economic issues and military affairs, is now complete, according to the source.

It has been fashionable, especially among Western Sinologists, to see such changes in China in terms of "factional politics" within the CPC and, indeed, as "power struggles". Such value judgments, regardless of the degree of their accuracy at any given time, often miss the essence of the dynamics of China's unique political system. Irrespective of the label of "party-state" for this system, as distinct from the conventional democracy of the essentially Western kind, China's political practices have endured for about 55 years through subtle shifts or definitive changes under the overall auspices of the CPC.

IT is against this background that Hu, in an address to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the National People's Congress, China's Parliament, in September, categorically stated that the adoption of Western political models would only lead the country to a "dead end".

Working within this political framework, the CPC is currently engaged in a process of building a "socialist democracy" and fashioning economic modernisation so as to place China at the centre of the globalisation drive on the international stage.

The modernisation of China's armed forces and the updating of the skills of the defence personnel are also to be seen as part of this wider political process. Not surprisingly, the Fourth Plenum of the 16th CPC Central Committee, which approved Hu's assumption of the post of CMC Chairman, noted that "this is conducive to upholding the fundamental principle and system of the Party's absolute leadership over the military". Hu's accession as CMC Chairman was also seen to be "conducive to the strengthening of the military's revolutionisation, modernisation and regularisation process".

Two aspects of this transition are particularly significant. First, the CPC plenum indicated that all branches of China's People's Liberation Army were now adhering to what was characterised as "the Jiang Zemin thought for national defence and army-building". Although this particular "thought" was not elaborated in the communique that was issued at the conclusion of the party plenum, the basic outline could be gleaned from the CPC's laudatory comment that under Jiang's leadership, China's "national defence and army modernisation process had achieved tremendous success".

The concept of China's "peaceful ascendance" on the global stage, which has gained currency for nearly a year now, has been formulated under Hu as President and CPC General Secretary, while Jiang was still at the helm of the CMC. This concept is designed to ward off apprehensions among China's neighbours and others about its massive military modernisation programme.

The second significant aspect of the new CMC-related development is the clear indication that the party has given about the smoothness of the hand-over of authority. So fulsome was the CPC plenum's `take' on the transition that the communique said that the four-day meeting had "highly evaluated Comrade Jiang Zemin's outstanding contributions to the Party, the state and the people".

What cannot be missed is the CPC's efforts to ensure as smooth and complete a transition of power to the "fourth generation of leaders" from the third as might be possible. It is in this context that the sustainability of the CPC-oriented political system is viewed within and outside China. Posing the question, "Will China become democratic?" Zheng Yongnian, a specialist on its politics, has noted that "a more realistic scenario of regime change in China is gradual political liberalisation". Using the political terminology of Western vintage, he has argued that "power struggle is unlikely to lead to a regime collapse" in China.

While Zheng and John Wong have tended to see a Chinese-style model of political succession, other scholars like Vivienne Shue have sought to evaluate the issues concerning the "legitimacy" of the governing dispensation. The latest episode of power transfer is an aspect that could help shape China in the near-term situation.

P. S. Suryanarayana
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