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Populism Percolates in China

From small gestures in villages to high-level policy changes, the new leaders are making their mark. But stability remains paramount.

March 13, 2004|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — They were two relative unknowns who emerged from the shadows of a powerful predecessor.

One year after the smoothest transition from one generation of Communist leaders to the next, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao appear to have consolidated their power and enhanced their images as populist leaders.

From the start, Hu and Wen focused on the poor to show they were different from the more elitist administration of former President Jiang Zemin. They turned heads in a series of high-profile visits to the country's downtrodden. They both ate New Year's Eve dumplings in poor farmers' kitchens. Wen also dined down a miners' shaft and Hu braved subfreezing temperatures to see how herders on the steppes of Inner Mongolia live. Both visited SARS-infected regions without wearing masks. Wen even shook hands with HIV patients, considered a first for such a high official.

Most Chinese have come to see these acts not as mere public relations gestures, but as genuine signs of change.

"I come from one of the most remote areas in southern China's Yunan province," said Peng Zhaoqing, a delegate to the Chinese legislature meeting this week in Beijing's Great Hall of the People. "When President Hu came to attend our committee meeting, he shook everybody's hand, including mine. In the past, the top leadership would only make a few symbolic handshakes and sit down. It's a tiny detail and small change. But it shows the difference in style and leadership."

More important, the team has translated good talk into new policies.

During his speech at the opening last week of the National People's Congress, Wen announced the dramatic move of slashing and eventually eliminating rural taxes within five years. Last year, after a migrant worker was beaten to death in police custody, Beijing changed the law to prevent mistreatment of migrant workers. During one of Wen's visits to the countryside, an old peasant woman told him about the chronic problem of unpaid wages for farmers who work in the cities. She got immediate help, which resulted in a national crackdown against employers who owe laborers money.

Responding to mounting public anger against official corruption, the government last month unveiled legislation to curb it, even at the highest levels of the party: The 24 members of the ruling Politburo must undergo periodic checks on their financial holdings.

While addressing the growing gap between the rich and poor, the Hu-Wen team has not forgotten China's growing middle class. This legislative session will enshrine Jiang's famous doctrine of the Three Represents, essentially giving capitalists a seat at the table next to workers and peasants, who are the original vanguards of the party. And for the first time in Communist history, the congress will give constitutional protection to private property.

"This is a sign that the Chinese government is becoming more sophisticated, representing different constituencies and different social groups," said Cheng Li, a China scholar at Hamilton College in upstate New York. "Their policies are not just lip service. They are quite real. They know their legitimacy and legacy will depend on balanced development."

The team is also trying to boost China's international standing, polishing its image as a rising economic and diplomatic superpower. Both Hu and Wen courted foreign leaders in the last year, visiting the U.S. and Europe. They also traveled to Arab states, Africa and Latin America.

Meanwhile, the venerable 77-year-old Jiang, whose continued influence was supposed to loom large over the new leadership, appears to have faded. He remains in control of the world's largest standing army. But he rarely shows his face in public and seems to give his successors plenty of space to take charge.

"The new guys have really taken control of the civilian aspects of government," said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago. "Jiang remains the final arbiter in military affairs. That provides room for Hu to maneuver, so it's not necessarily a bad thing. But that transition will occur."

As long as Jiang is there, Hu's people have been careful not to challenge his authority or stir the hornet's nest when it comes to his numerous proteges. An ongoing corruption probe involving members of the so-called Shanghai gang with close connections to Jiang remains in limbo. Rather than a sign of weakness on Hu's part, some see the developments as his way of gaining leverage over on his predecessor's cronies.

"Within the last year, local officials in Shanghai have bent over backward to adopt reforms to control corruption, to show they are not out of line and that they are in support of the central government," Yang said. "They don't want to be seen as getting special treatment just because they are from Shanghai."

Despite promises of more open government and intra-party democracy, harsh crackdowns on the media and Internet have occurred on Hu's watch.

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