Hu takes control as Jiang resigns

Posted in China , Asia | 21-Sep-04 | Author: Joseph Kahn| Source: International Herald Tribune

China's president, Hu Jintao, right, and Jiang Zemin Sunday, after Mr. Jiang's retirement was announced.
President takes up levers of military; orderly power transfer is China's first

BEIJING President Hu Jintao replaced Jiang Zemin as China's military chief and de facto top leader on Sunday, completing the first orderly transfer of power in Chinese Communist Party history, state media announced.

Hu, who became Communist Party chief in 2002 and president in 2003, now commands the state, the military and the ruling party. He will set both foreign and domestic policy in the world's most populous country, which now has the world's seventh-largest economy and is rapidly emerging as a great power.

The transition marks a significant victory for Hu, a relatively unknown product of the Communist Party machine. He has solidified control of China's most powerful posts at a younger age - he is now 61 - than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, and is now likely to be able to govern relatively unimpeded by powerful elders.

Jiang's resignation, which came as a surprise to many party officials, who expected the tenacious elder leader to cling to power for several more years, came after tensions between Jiang and Hu began to affect policy making in the one-party state, some officials and political analysts said.

Jiang, 78, may be suffering from health problems, several people informed about leadership debates said. But he has appeared robust in recent public appearances and was widely described as determined to keep his job - and even to expand his authority - until he submitted a letter of resignation earlier this month.

The leadership transition was announced Sunday in a terse dispatch by the official Xinhua news agency, followed by a 45-minute broadcast on China Central Television. Jiang and Hu appeared side by side, smiling, shaking hands and praising each other profusely before applauding members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which formally accepted Jiang's resignation and Hu's promotion at the conclusion of its four-day annual session.

Jiang's offer to retire, which was first reported by The New York Times earlier this month, was given no advance publicity in state media. China Central Television read the text of Jiang's resignation letter on its evening broadcast, stressing that his resignation had been voluntary. The letter was dated Sept. 1.

"In consideration of the long-term development of the party's and people's collective endeavors, I have always looked forward to fully retiring from all leadership posts," Jiang wrote, according to an official transcript of his letter. He said Hu "is fully qualified to take up this position."

Since the Communists defeated the Nationalists in a civil war and took control of China in 1949, the party has repeatedly failed to execute orderly successions. All three of the men chosen by Mao Zedong to succeed him were purged before they could consolidate power, two of them by Mao himself and the third by Deng Xiaoping after Mao's death in 1976.

Deng also anointed and then cashiered two successors, after the bloody crackdown on dissent in 1989, elevating Jiang from the middling rank of Shanghai party chief to China's highest posts.

The most recent transition looked similarly compromised when Jiang maneuvered to keep control of the military in 2002. Party officials said Hu had been slated to inherit full power at that time and that his failure to control the military forced him to operate in Jiang's shadow.

But Jiang's retirement suggests that the party now operates more according to the consensus of its elite members than to the whims of its most senior leader.

Also, Jiang did not appear to have extracted any special concessions as the price for his retirement. Notably, he failed to arrange for Vice President Zeng Qinghong to be elevated to the Central Military Commission. Party officials had said that they expected Zeng, a longtime protégé and ally of Jiang, to become either a regular member or a vice chairman of the commission.

On Sunday, Xu Caihou, a military officer in charge of propaganda work, was elevated to replace Hu as a vice chairman of the commission.

He will serve along with Cao Gangchuan, the defense minister, and General Guo Boxiong.

The number of regular members of the commission was expanded to seven from four, adding representatives from the navy, air force and the unit in charge of China's nuclear arsenal.

Hu, an official who rarely if ever traveled outside China before he rose to the most senior ranks in the late 1990s, has sent mixed signals about how he intends to rule.

He deftly handled the first big crisis of his leadership in the spring of 2003, when China faced the SARS epidemic, which top health officials had initially covered up. Hu sacked two senior officials and ordered a broad mobilization to combat the disease, which was controlled within weeks.

He has sought to draw a contrast with Jiang's aristocratic image, making trips to China's poorest areas and shunning some conspicuous perks. He pledged to raise the incomes of workers and peasants and to redirect more state spending to areas left behind in China's long economic boom.

"Use power for the people, show concern for the people and seek benefit for the people," Hu said in remarks early in his term as party chief. He has allowed the state media to refer to him as a populist, though his rise through the ranks has not depended on popular support.

Little is known about Hu personally, beyond a few random facts offered by the propaganda machine, including his enthusiasm for table tennis and what is described as his photographic memory.

In official settings, he is a much less colorful figure than Jiang, who crooned "Love Me Tender" at an Asian diplomatic gathering and was fond of quoting Jefferson and reciting the "Gettysburg Address" to visiting Americans.

It seems highly unlikely that Hu is a closet liberal. Editors and journalists say he has tightened media controls. He has presided over a crackdown on online discussion by jailing people who express anti-government views on the Internet.

"My general impression is that Hu is a Communist of the old mode," said Alfred Chan, professor of politics at Huron College in Canada who is conducting a study of the new leadership.

"His career has been totally shaped by the Communist system," Chan said. "I think many expectations of him are exaggerated because he works under the constraints of party discipline."

In a speech delivered last week, Hu referred to Western-style democracy as a "blind ally" for China. He has a plan for political reform, but it mostly involves injecting some transparency and competitiveness into the single-party system to make officials police themselves better.

In foreign affairs, Hu deferred largely to Jiang.

Hu is not expected to alter course substantially. But party officials say that he has tended to emphasize relations with China's neighbors and with Europe over ties with the United States and Japan.

He faces two major foreign policy tests that Jiang leaves unresolved. One involves North Korea, China's longtime ally, which American officials say is on the verge of becoming a full-scale nuclear power.

Chinese officials worry that if North Korea formally goes nuclear, other Asian countries, notably Japan, could follow.

China is also deeply worried about how to handle Taiwan under President Chen Shui-bian, who many here believe intends to move the island, which China claims as its sovereign territory, toward independence.

Jiang steered China toward a tougher rhetorical and military posture toward Taiwan, even as the Bush administration expanded military aid to the island. Hu has not shown any signs of changing course, but some analysts believe he may experiment with a more flexible approach if he does not have to worry about having his nationalist credentials second-guessed by Jiang.

Hu and Jiang did not publicly spar. But there were signs that their relationship had become strained. Jiang rejected a framework for China's emergence as a great power that Hu supported. The policy framework, known by the slogan "peaceful rise," was dismissed by Jiang as too soft at a time when China was threatening Taiwan with military force.