Mon, 23 Sep 2002

Will Jiang Zemin step down?

Natalia Soebagyo, Board Member, Center for Chinese Studies, Jakarta

Now that the date for the 16th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been confirmed for Nov. 8, speculation is high about what will President Jiang Zemin do. Will he or won't he step down gracefully as the Party secretary-general? What is important to note is the attempt of CCP leaders to secure an orderly political succession. How serious are they?

No doubt the changes in China's domestic situation and demands of the international community require a Chinese leadership that is not only more savvy about the outside world, but also more attuned to the dynamics of a fast-changing Chinese society.

Since its accession into the World Trade Organization (WTO), China is a full-fledged and recognized member of the international economic community and therefore has to act accordingly.

Chinese society has also changed; the individual in China has greater freedom now to pursue his aspirations. There is, to a certain extent, greater freedom of expression allowed and urban life especially is very vibrant.

There are surely still many unresolved issues related to the blind pursuit of economic development while having to simultaneously build the necessary institutions for supporting such rapid development. Corruption is rampant, state-owned enterprises are saddled by debt, the number of private enterprises continue to grow and the public is increasingly more critical. Chinese society is therefore now much more complex.

Deng Xiaoping had anticipated this and not long after he assumed power he began to put in place a system for orderly political succession, realizing full well that institutionalizing succession in a Leninist system is no easy task. He started the process by handpicking his successors early, by encouraging his peers to retire and by emphasizing the importance of institutions and clear procedures in the management of the politics of the elite.

He also began limiting his importance within the system so that his departure would not be too disruptive. Thus, he gave up two of the top three positions, namely the premiership and head of the party.

However, as rivalry among the political elite became more acute, Deng subsequently purged his handpicked successors, first Hu Yaobang in 1987 and then Zhao Ziyang after the Tiananmen incident in 1989. He also kept his position as chairman of the powerful Military Affairs Commission.

It was clear that there was, and still is, a big difference between real power and formal position and that the institution- building process was not going very far. Hence, Deng did not follow through his succession strategy as he had originally intended.

Jiang Zemin's appointment was Deng's third and last attempt to secure the party's leadership. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen incident, Deng's options were limited. Other members of the Politburo Standing Committee had either been too lenient or too harsh towards the Tiananmen demonstrators and Jiang Zemin was seen as a safe bet, a solid party member who had steadily risen in the ranks through a series of steady promotions despite lacking the revolutionary credentials.

Over the years, Jiang has emerged as a leader who began his term as secretary-general cautiously, but who over the years has proven capable of weathering the storm, setting the middle ground between those on the left who espouse upholding socialism and those on the right who have no qualms over so-called "bourgeois liberalization." He has come into his own as a political leader.

This confidence is reflected in Jiang Zemin's desire to attain the same stature as his predecessors by trying to make his "Three Represents" theory part of party doctrine. By doing so he is asking the Party to represent the fundamental interests of the broad masses of the Chinese people, not simply representing the vanguard of the working class.

The "Three Represents" is a theory which ideologically justifies the emergence of the new capitalists in China, making the CCP a more open, almost an "all people's party".

As the 16th CCP Congress draws near, analysts wonder whether in this coming congress Jiang Zemin will tackle the issue of political reform and succession from the "third" generation to the "fourth" generation of China's leadership.

Membership of the Politburo Standing Committee was determined months ago and many scenarios have been raised about who will be the next core. One scenario is that Jiang Zemin will relinquish his position and hand over the baton to Hu Jintao, thus carrying out a smooth transition. Another scenario has Jiang Zemin stepping down only if Li Peng, Zhu Rongji and others of his generation relinquish power too.

If the CCP is serious about establishing a system of orderly political succession, Jiang Zemin would not be given the opportunity to retain his power. He currently is president, Party secretary-general and chairman of the Central Military Commission. The Constitution limits the Presidency to two terms and Jiang Zemin is nearing the end of two terms.

He has also been Party secretary-general for longer than two terms. Besides, he is 76 and if he doesn't step down it would irk speaker for National People's Congress Qiao Shi who grudgingly withdrew in 1997 when Jiang asked all those over 70 to step down.

If he insists on staying on the scene, he could always extend his term as chairman of the CMC or revive the position of Party chairman, which Deng abolished in 1982.

But unfortunately for Jiang, he has already promised to withdraw from the scene by the end of this year.

To induce him to step down, the trade-off could be for the Party to officially incorporate the "Three Represents" into Party doctrine.

All this speculation proves that political succession in China is still an opaque process and that the law of men still prevails over the rule of law; but hopefully the trend is going in the right direction.

One can only assume that political reform in China, as with economic reform, will be slow and incremental, nudged along by reformist elements both within and without the CCP.