Changing the Guard in China

4 November 2002

Changing the Guard in China

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s China, of course, so nobody outside the Communist Party’s inner circles knows exactly what’s going to happen when the 16th Party Congress opens on Friday, 8 November. This is supposed to be when the ‘third generation’ of leaders — those who fought for the revolution, and forty years later gave the orders to clear the pro-democracy protesters from Tienanmen Square by force — will finally hand over power, but these things are never certain in China until they actually happen.

What will it mean, though, if it is true? If 76-year-old Jiang Zemin, who combines the jobs of head of state, commander-in-chief, and secretary-general of the Party, retires in favour of 59-year-old Vice-President Hu Jintao? If the hardest of hard-liners, Li Peng, who now runs China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, is replaced by the relatively liberal ex-worker Li Ruihuan? And if Premier Zhu Rongji is succeeded by Vice-Premier Wen Jiabao after only one term?

Measured at purchasing power parity, China’s economy is already second only to the United States in the world, yet it remains an anachronistic dictatorship and its economy is still an awkward blend of the old state industries and the new entrepreneurs. It matters to everybody where a new leadership might take the country — and yet literally nobody knows.

Nobody knows even in China, because anyone seeking to rise in the oppressive gerontocracy that the Chinese Communist Party had become by the mid-1980s had to play their cards very close to their chest. Bland conformism, not bright new ideas, was the key to political survival, and even if the rumoured successors, Hu Jintao, Li Ruihuan and Wen Jiabao, were all closet reformers, they would never have dared to show their cards to each other. It means any change of leadership is a lottery, but since the Party Congress only meets every five years it probably cannot be postponed further.

There are those who hope that Hu is a secret Gorbachev, pointing out that the Russian reformer also had to hide his true goals until he had power, but the sole clue pointing in that direction is the fact that the elite Central Party School (which Hu heads) has a policy of inviting guest speakers of every intellectual persuasion. His conduct as Party boss in Tibet in 1988-92, when he unhesitatingly deployed troops to crush pro-independence demonstrators, points as persuasively in the other


It’s also not clear that Hu will be a free agent even if he does get the top job. For several decades now the ‘elders’ of the Party, though formally retired from their posts, have kept a powerful collective grip on policy.

The retirement of Jiang Zemin, Lin Peng and others of the ‘third generation’ of leaders may simply replenish the dwindling band of elders and reinforce their influence. It should make a difference that the last men who bear personal responsibility for the massacre of Chinese citizens in the streets of Beijing in 1989 are finally leaving office, but it may not make all that much difference in the short run. The real question is what happens in the longer run.

The Party will move further away from its original doctrines at this Congress, admitting businessmen to membership (as ‘managerial workers’) and shifting the justification for its monopoly of power away from the familiar old Leninist/Maoist nonsense about the historic role of the ‘vanguard party’ to Jiang’s new and equally self-serving formula of the ‘Three Representations’. That is to say, the Party will continue to have the right to tell everybody else what to do so long as it represents the majority of the people’s interests, ensures that the economy grows, and advances Chinese culture.

This rich tripe, not one whit more convincing than the Divine Right of Kings, is being portrayed in China as the fruit of a hard-won battle against the more orthodox dogmas of the old hard left — which, if true, would say something profoundly discouraging about the state of debate within the Party. But it probably isn’t an accurate reflection of the true range of that debate.

Especially in the younger generation, the Party is really split along lines that are not so much ideological as tactical: how does the Party remain in power as the country modernises, and save its members from awkward questions about where their wealth came from? On one side are those who believe only a rigid refusal to share power can protect them (and therefore cling to the old Marxist ideology). On the other are those who believe that an early move to democracy led by the Party itself would guarantee its stranglehold on political power for another generation.

The liberalisers are likely to win in the long run, because Communist parties’ habit of forcing the entire elite of the society to join means they all hollow out eventually. But they aren’t likely to make a move in the short run, because the blame for the economic and social upheavals that are on the way in China is better left to the old regime. As the unemployment climbs and the strikes spread, as the banks get ever shakier and the need to rationalise or close down rust-belt industries grows more pressing, now is not the time when you would want to take over the responsibility for ruling China.

Maybe at the next Party Congress.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“The Party…debate”)