Leadership change in China

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

A new generation of leaders take charge in China with a pledge to correct the growing economic disparities in society caused by reforms.

THE two-week-long session of the 10th National People's Congress (NPC) of China ended in Beijing on March 18 after approving overwhelmingly the country's new leadership. A new generation of leadership is now in place at the top echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the government. The process of transfer of power had started in November last when Jiang Zemin handed over the General Secretary-ship of the CCP to Hu Jintao, who had been formally elected President of the People's Republic of China during the NPC session in March. The NPC also approved the appointment of a new Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, along with a Cabinet with new faces in top posts.

Wen Jiabao, a former geologist, will be in charge of the economy, like his predecessor Zhu Rongji. The 60-year-old Wen Jiabao is famous for his phenomenal grasp of statistics pertaining to the Chinese economy. On assuming office, he pledged to address the problems faced by workers and peasants. The Prime Minister, who ranks third in the Communist Party hierarchy after President Hu Jintao and the Speaker of the Legislature, Wu Bangguo, said that the statistics regarding the Chinese economy made him both happy and sad. He was happy because of the fast growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and sad because of the slow growth of farmers' incomes, rising unemployment, lingering poverty and the "east-west disparity in development".

Wen Jiabao said that five or six provinces in China's west had contributed more than 50 per cent of the country's GDP. He revealed that laid-off and unemployed workers in the country totalled nearly 14 million. Around 900 million of China's 1.3-billion-strong population lives in the countryside. The government acknowledges that around 30 million Chinese still live below the poverty line. "If the benchmark for the poverty line is raised to 200 yuan, the number of Chinese living in extreme poverty will rise to 90 million," Wen Jiabao, said at a press conference in Beijing. However, he said that there were encouraging statistics too. These included a GDP growth of more than 9 per cent in the past two decades and foreign exchange reserve of more than $300 billion.

FOUR Vice-Premiers were appointed during the NPC session. Among them was Wu Yi, the highest-ranking woman in the CCP hierarchy. She is the only woman in the Polit Bureau. The three other Vice-Premiers are Huang Ju, Zeng Peiyan and Hui Liangyu. Huang Ju was the former Party Secretary of Shanghai and like the other Vice-Premiers, is a member of the Politburo.

The new Foreign Minister is Li Zhaoxing. He has served as China's Ambassador to the United States and as its Permanent Representative in the United Nations (U.N.). After his appointment, Li told the media that China's policy "will be to urge peace and avoid war". Even as the U.S. military machine was all set to roll against Iraq, Li urged the media to keep their "fingers crossed for peace". China has been supporting the French and Russian position on Iraq. The former head of the Chinese space programme, Cao Gangchuan, has been appointed the Defence Minister. Like all previous Defence Ministers of China, Cao too is a former General of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). He was also named a Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Former President Jiang Zemin continues as the head of the Military Commission. President Hu Jintao is also a Vice-Chairman of the important body. Western commentators have suggested that there will be two active power centres in operation in China as long as Jiang Zemin holds on to the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission. However, most Chinese scholars and officials have ruled out the prospects of a power struggle. They emphasise that only the leadership has changed - not the policies of the government or the Party.

There has been a small increase in China's defence budget. It was announced in February that defence spending has been increased to 9.6 per cent this year. This is the first time in 14 years that defence spending has officially gone up by more than one percentage point. The increase, according to officials, was necessitated to cover the expenses related to food and clothing for the PLA. The Chinese space programme, in which the new Defence Minister has had an important role, envisages sending a manned mission to the moon by the year 2010. Indications are that the Chinese government is not going to sit idle as the Bush administration tries to militarise outer space.

All 3,000 members of the NPC also endorsed the government's blueprint for the all-round development of China. They also voted on resolutions related to State Development Plans, central and local budgets, the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate. A small percentage of the delegates either voted against or abstained on some of the resolutions. This has come in for considerable comment in the Western media. But this has happened in other NPC sessions held in the last couple of years as well, since non-communist parties are represented in the NPC. After China embarked on market reforms, pro-business representatives have also found a place in the NPC.

In fact, when the NPC was in session, a vocal minority of legislators from the province of Guangdong, which is an economic powerhouse, called for a constitutional amendment that would make private property "sacrosanct and inviolable". Government officials have ruled out any such concession in the near future.

President Hu Jintao, in his speech at the closing session of the NPC, while calling for greater democracy in China, emphasised that only socialism could save the country. He stressed the crucial role of the Communist Party in the politics of the country. Hu Jintao pledged to give "full scope to democracy, do everything according to law and adhere to Party leadership". He praised his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, for "his outstanding contributions to building socialism with Chinese characteristics".

Wen Jiabao, in his first press conference after taking over as Prime Minister, said that the government would continue to encourage the development of private enterprise. According to him, private enterprises will enjoy the same privileges as state companies in relation to market access, taxation, loans and foreign trade.

However, the new President and Prime Minister have indicated that their priority will be to bridge the growing economic disparities in Chinese society. Wen Jiabao has listed employment, social security issues and putting the market in order as the "three important economic tasks". Both Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao also touched on foreign policy issues, with their major focus being on Taiwan.

The Prime Minister said that complete reunification of China was the common aspiration of the Chinese people and that his government would work for "the earliest settlement of the Taiwan issue and realise the complete reunification of the motherland". He also pledged to continue "the independent foreign policy of peaceful coexistence, maintain and develop friendly and cooperative relations with all other countries". The President said that his government would strive for "a fair and rational international political and economic order".

He ended his speech to the NPC by saying that China was sure to realise the goal of national rejuvenation as long as "we hold high the great banner of Deng Xiaoping Theory, carry out the important `Three Represents', adhere to the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics". The Prime Minister while focussing on the issue of "peaceful reunification" of Taiwan with the mainland, also spoke on other important issues such as Sino-Russian and Sino-Japanese relations.

Strengthening bilateral relations with India has been an important goal of the Chinese leadership since the early 1990s. The new leadership is giving high priority to friendly relations with India. Bilateral relations are bound to get a further fillip when Defence Minister George Fernandes and Prime Minster A. B. Vajpayee visit China. According to diplomatic sources, Fernandes will be in China at the end of April or in early May. Vajpayee's visit is tentatively scheduled for June. The Chinese side feels that further improvement in bilateral relations is possible if the two sides started talking about issues that are relatively easy to solve.

The view from Beijing is that once mutual trust and understanding is solidified between the two sides, progress on more contentious issues will be faster. It is pointed out that the Sino-Russian border dispute, which was once considered more intractable than the Sino-Indian border dispute has been amicably resolved. The Chinese government also wants India to understand that its relations with other countries have been developed with no ulterior motives. China has excellent relations with Russia, despite Moscow supplying sophisticated military equipment exclusively to India. Cooperation between India and China will be good for both countries. "Japan and the U.S. cooperated in the field of high technology. Both countries benefited," said a diplomat.

THE "fourth generation" of the Chinese leadership, represented by the new President and Prime Minister, have made it a point to demonstrate more concern for farmers, laid-off workers and other downtrodden people the economic boom of the last two decades has left behind.

The new team has the onerous task of keeping reforms on track while at the same time generating enough employment so that the majority of the citizens benefit from the heady economic growth. Since November 2002, both Hu Jintao and Wen Jibao have been travelling to remote and less developed areas of China to have a first-hand look at the problems faced by the rural population. Both the leaders had spent considerable time in the earlier part of their careers in the poorer parts of western China.

Wen Jiabao has stated that the "central task and basic goal" of the new administration is to raise lagging rural incomes, now that the "iron rice bowl" (permanent guaranteed employment in the state sector companies) days are over. The increasingly influential Chinese private sector is not averse to the new leadership's emphasis on improving the quality of life in the countryside, realising that the growth of an internal market is important for everybody concerned. The outgoing Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji, in his valedictory speech to the NPC, had urged the legislative body to "swiftly and assiduously" remedy the unemployment situation and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor.

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