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Start of the Hu era as Jiang steps down
By Li YongYan

BEIJING - The rumors that have been washing in and around Beijing have proved to be true, ending the season's biggest political suspense - it was almost an anti-climax. It is official now: at the close of the Fourth Plenary Session of the Chinese Communist Party's 16th Congress on Sunday, Jiang Zeming, 78, stepped down as the chairman of the party's powerful Central Military Commission. CCP chairman and national President Hu Jintao, 61, has formally taken over and become the commander-in-chief of the People's Liberation Army in addition to his other jobs.

The announcement reads like a typical Chinese obituary: only nice things are said about the departing Jiang. But nobody pays the slightest attention to the glowing words that fail to conceal the fact that an era has ended. While tons of print will start pouring out about Jiang, his life and his political legacy, it is time to begin looking into the new era, now that Hu is finally the most powerful man in China.

Most analyses and comments will focus on what he will bring to the most populous country in the world. For example, will he carry on with Jiang's conservative policies that holds communist one-party rule as the sacred creed and maintain "stability at all costs"? Will Hu yield to growing pressure from the increasingly wide wealth and justice gap inside China, and introduce some political reforms that curb his party's absolute power and permit more freedom to the people? Or will he be capable of some bigger surprises?

It is unlikely that Hu will be Jiang Act II, because he is not like Jiang. While Jiang is pompous and conceited, Hu has been modest, self-effacing, even awkward at times, and appears to be wise enough to know that he is not the sun. In style, Hu refuses to consecrate himself as holier than the rest of the human race. Furthermore, it doesn't seem to bother him when "collective leadership" is stressed instead of his logical, and numerical, status as fourth-generation top leader. Even Jiang's resignation makes a pointed reference to Hu's position: while Jiang was the "core" of the third-generation leadership, the party congress only called on the CCP to "close ranks around the new leadership with Hu as the general secretary".

Communist semantics notwithstanding, the real issue is not what Hu will do or not do, but whether he will undo something really big: his own Communist Party.

It is a daunting job, but it is doable - and something like it has been achieved before.

Nazism and Soviet communism were both powerful at one time, yet they ended up at the dustbin of history. But they lost out in different ways.

Nazism was defeated by outside military forces, whereas Soviet-bloc communism devoured itself. Both the former Soviet Union and the Eastern European bloc got rid of communism for good when the ruling Communist parties in the respective countries stepped down without foreign intervention or popular uprising. In other words, communism dies when it has grown so powerful that its only enemy is itself and it collapses under its own weight. Its organizational structure guarantees that the only one who can do anything about it is its paramount leader.

Generally, as battle-hardened founders of the communist regimes exit the stage, the new leaders falter because the shoes they must fill are too large. These younger general secretaries have not participated in the bloody fight for the power, which is a deficiency that denies them a sense of proprietary rights to absolute power. Moreover, they are brought up in an era when information flow permits exposure to outside opinion - mostly negative and harshly critical - of their predecessors. They cannot honestly believe they are on the right side of history. So as their faith begins to weaken, their hands shake when it comes to using force to maintain their rule.

While the founders had no qualms about killing a few thousand more - they had done it and seen it done all the time during the revolution years - their successors are more inhibited by morality. Despite communist indoctrination on class struggle between life and death, they have difficulty cleansing themselves of an inherent respect for life and justice. They know it is wrong to kill people just because they disagree with you. Despite the iron-handed oppression by their predecessors, pressure is mounting both at home and abroad for abolishing totalitarianism and returning power to the people.

Amid growing demands for democracy, the new crop of communist leaders realizes that their power, awesome and absolute as it is, has no legitimacy. The ruled have never agreed to the communism dictating how they should live their lives. The common people have had more than enough of human-rights abuse and they are tired of corrupt officials. As a result, the government has a huge problem justifying itself. The inevitable question is, "Why am I here?" Troubled by this self-doubt, they find it harder, with each passing day, to cope with differences. What to do when their power is challenged, decisions questioned and policies criticized? Calling out the field army on armored personnel carriers as did Deng Xiaoping in the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 would probably give them a heart attack first.

With Jiang out of the way, Hu also is no longer able to pass the buck - and the blame. He must face the choice: either establish his authority the hard and usual way, or risk bringing the sky crashing down on him if the center can no longer hold. Perversely, rule is most stable when the ruler is the most savage. That is because absent election-based legitimacy, authority and respect grow not out of overwhelming victories over enemies but from merciless crackdowns on one's own comrades. Loyalty only comes from fear. Mao Zedong brought about a series of massive disasters to China but his power only grew stronger. He bullied everybody into submission by treating many of his comrades much more harshly than his enemies on the battlegrounds. For example, his prisoners of war, including Japanese war criminals, served considerably shorter sentences than his former colleagues-turned-political-enemies. Deng, too, imprisoned Mao's widow until her death to avenge his own purge by the Gang of Four.

Jiang Zemin cut his teeth on struggle and instilled fear through breaking the so-called Beijing Gang and incarcerating the capital's party secretary Chen Xitong and others. If Hu wants to assert the authority that his three titles declare that he has, he will have to follow the examples before him and make an example of somebody as well - preferably from Jiang's camp - and start collecting enemies as Jiang has done.

Of course, there is another way to avoid going down in history as another faceless, mediocre, contemptible communist who does himself and his country no good: doing China a favor and dismantling the Chinese Communist Party. To overcome opposition from within his own ranks, he can always call upon the ever-creative, ever-adaptable Propaganda Department to come up with such justifications as glasnost (transparency, openness in Russian): I am doing all this for the sole purpose of saving the party from itself.

There are already signs that Hu is deviating from Jiang's road: he isn't harping incessantly about Jiang's partyspeak; he is seen as the force behind the call for "democracy within the party". Hu advocates thrift in government projects; he avoids spending the summer at the Beidaihe beach resort; he brings his own men into the Central Military Commission to strengthen his control over in the military. And already there are newspaper commentaries critical of the past leadership's "lack of care for the people" - a reference to Jiang - and praising the "new leadership with the humane touch".

Of course, it is too early to hold one's breath for Hu's success. But people make history by doing great things. Sometimes history is also made when someone undoes something very big and very important. Mikhail Gorbachev remained faceless until he put into effect the policies that eventually dethroned the Soviet Communist Party. Right now, Hu Jingtao is standing at a similar, crucial juncture, an intersection of history; the traffic lights are flashing, forcing him to give a signal, choose a direction and move ahead.

Li YongYan is an observer of Chinese politics, economics and society.

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Sep 21, 2004

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