Hu takes charge

Posted in China , Asia | 30-Sep-04 | Source: International Herald Tribune

Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
The Chinese Communist Party has managed to outlive its Soviet and East European counterparts in large part because it harnessed that old Marxist devil, capitalism, to foster an economic boom of the sort the Soviets never imagined. But the many questions around the abrupt consolidation of power by the party chief, Hu Jintao, suggest that it's too soon to conclude that freedom to make money spawns other freedoms. One chilling example was the arrest of a Chinese journalist, apparently out of suspicion that he helped a New York Times reporter get an early scoop on the story of the political shift.

Communist leaders everywhere have always preferred to play out their politics in secret. But there was even less explanation than usual when Jiang Zemin, the former party leader, suddenly ceded the last of his official functions, as head of the party's military commission, to Hu on Sept. 19. That added the effective command of the armed forces to Hu's other jobs as president and head of the party, suggesting that he had finally won whatever power struggle he had been waging with Jiang.

If Hu has emerged as the paramount leader, it is the first time that the transfer of power in the People's Republic has been so orderly. And at the age of 61, younger than any leader since Mao Zedong, and far younger than the 78-year-old Jiang, Hu is likely to be around for a long time.

What that means, however, is not so clear. Hu has appeared at times more populist and modern than Jiang, as when he sacked top health officials for covering up the SARS epidemic, or when he took public note of the huge inequities in income among the Chinese. But he has betrayed no Gorbachev-like reformist urges, referring to Western-style democracy as a "blind alley" for China and tightening media controls. So the immediate future, at least, is likely to look very much like the immediate past.

Two days before the leadership transition was officially announced, authorities in Shanghai detained Zhao Yan, a news assistant in the Beijing bureau of The New York Times who was formerly a reporter for the magazine China Reform. Zhao's family was advised that he was accused of "providing state secrets to foreigners." Apparently, the "state secret" was an advance report that Jiang was about to retire. The Times says Zhao had nothing to do with the article. But the very suggestion that something that anywhere else would pass for routine politics is a state secret in Beijing speaks volumes about Chinese Communism.

Under the leadership of Jiang and Hu, China has demonstrated an enormous vitality and capacity for creative development, and economic well-being is an indispensable prerequisite for the development of democracy. But the reverse is equally true: Good government and the rule of law are indispensable for sustained development. One way to signal that Hu is not oblivious to this would be to release Zhao, and to make clear that his arrest was wrong.