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China Sees End of an Era

Old-guard ex-president Jiang Zemin gives up the post of military chief to his successor, Hu Jintao, completing a transition started last year.

September 20, 2004|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — More than a year after becoming China's president, Hu Jintao was handed the full reins of power Sunday when his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, gave up the nation's most powerful military post.

The move ends an awkward power-sharing arrangement that has seen two rival camps maneuvering for position as China faces a number of major foreign and domestic policy challenges, including relations with Taiwan, North Korea's nuclear program, government corruption and rapid economic growth.

The nation learned of the change in a somber newscast Sunday evening after a four-day, closed-door meeting of the Communist Party's Central Committee. The announcement suggested that the move was Jiang's idea, even though the 78-year-old former president had been under growing pressure to step aside in favor of Hu, 61.

Jiang's resignation clears the way for the next generation of leaders to put their full stamp on affairs of state, but analysts said they did not expect any immediate shift in China's foreign or domestic policies as Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao continue to move incrementally.

Still, many observers said the transition showed that China's governing machinery was gradually modernizing, making decisions more on the basis of consensus and increasing political control over the military.

After the disorderly transition from Mao Tse-tung to Deng Xiaoping, and from Deng to Jiang, Jiang's resignation completes China's first smooth leadership handover since the Communists took over in 1949.

"This is great for China and great for Jiang himself," said Wang Yukai, professor at the National School of Administration in Beijing. "Jiang has successfully filled his historic task, and other leaders will now have much more freedom. This is the real start of the Hu era."

Taking over as chairman of the Communist Party's powerful Central Military Commission, Hu now holds the nation's three top posts -- president, military chief and Communist Party head. Jiang does retain a second military title in the state military commission until March, but analysts said it was largely ceremonial.

For China-watchers, what doesn't happen often can be as significant as what does. Some had speculated that Vice President Zeng Qinghong, a key Jiang ally, might be put on the military commission in exchange for Jiang's resignation. This would have allowed Jiang to continue to wield influence, particularly given Zeng's reputation for hardball political tactics.

Instead, the party named Xu Caihou, 61, as vice chairman of the military commission, filling the vacancy left by Hu's elevation.

"It's a good thing Zeng was not promoted," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China expert with the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. "That would have left the wolf in the sheep's grounds."

Xu is not a particularly high-profile figure, leading some analysts to suggest he was a compromise candidate. Yet others point out that although Xu is not strongly identified with either group, he has ties to the Central Party secretariat, where Zeng is influential -- indicating his promotion may have been a bone thrown to Jiang's camp.

In the 18 months since becoming president, Hu has cultivated a more down-to-earth image than Jiang, who was seen as a somewhat stuffy champion of the privileged. With populist touches and sympathetic gestures toward farmers and migrant workers, Hu and Prime Minister Wen have won support among ordinary Chinese.

"There's a move to be the party of the common man rather than the party of elites," said Stephen Green, head of the Asia program at Chatham House, an independent institute based in London. "I think they'll continue in that direction."

Symbolism and good public relations aside, however, Hu and Wen's vision for China has been relatively hard to glean. Although Hu said last week that following the West's political model would be a "dead end" for China, many observers hope he is more open to reforms than Jiang.

"We'll have to see in the next few months whether there's been a real consolidation or if they're just rearranging the deck chairs," Green said.

Despite Jiang's departure, analysts said they expected Hu to continue cautiously in the coming months, reflecting both his personal style and the need to consolidate his position.

Jiang, a former Shanghai mayor, became party head in 1989 and president in 1993. During his tenure he filled government and party ranks with allies, and Hu will need to win them over.

In particular, Jiang's clique in Shanghai, which fears its pet real estate and civic projects may be canceled, has actively opposed Hu and Wen's recent bid to slow down China's overheated economy.

Hu, as military chief, also must tread carefully in handling relations with China's 2.5-million-strong People's Liberation Army. He has no military background -- Jiang didn't either -- and must finesse the military's push for bigger budgets and its inclination toward using force to guarantee the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland.

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