Asia Program

Events

"Who Will Be China's Next Leader?"

February 20, 2001 // 11:00pm

By Gang Lin
Asia Program Associate

Cheng Li, professor of government, Hamilton College
Andrew Scobell, associate research professor, U.S. Army War College
Murray Scot Tanner, associate professor, Western Michigan University
Carol Lee Hamrin, affiliate professor, George Mason University

China's top leader Jiang Zemin is scheduled to resign from his posts as Party boss and state head at the 16th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party in the fall of 2002 and the country's Tenth National People's Congress the following spring. If the Party's supreme power can be smoothly transferred from Jiang to his designated successor, Hu Jintao, it will mark the first routine power transition without the impetus of a political crisis or the death of the top leader in the history of the People's Republic of China. However, the identity of China's next leader is contingent upon many uncertain factors, including:


* Will Jiang Zemin cling to the powerful chairmanship of the Military Affairs Commission and rule from "behind the curtain" after 2002?
* Will Hu Jintao be able to control the Chinese military?
* Will China's fourth generation of leaders endorse Hu's leadership and replace the third generation as the principal force in Beijing's leadership over the next few years?
* Is Beijing likely to initiate significant political reforms in an effort to maintain social stability and economic prosperity, or continue political stagnancy by manipulating the widespread nationalism and neo-conservatism inside China?
* Will Beijing adopt a more flexible policy toward the United States as well as the rest of the world?



These factors, among others, will determine the future of China's political development and U.S.-China relations in the years to come.

At a February 21 Asia Program seminar titled "China's Political Succession and Its Political Implications for the United States," four distinguished experts on Chinese politics explored China's possible power structure and policy direction following next year's Party congress. Panelists agreed that Hu Jintao will become China's next top leader. They differed, however, as to whether Jiang will remain influential and what the political agenda will look like for the new leadership in the years to come.

Andrew Scobell of the U.S. Army War College argued that it is unlikely that Jiang Zemin will vacate all his official positions and fade away after the Party's 16th congress in 2002. Jiang is reluctant to relinquish power and wants to leave a legacy of great accomplishments comparable to his two predecessors, Mao and Deng.

Given Jiang's good health and the allegiance of military commanders to his leadership, he may retain his chairmanship of the Party's Military Affairs Commission and remain China's paramount leader for another decade, Scobell maintained. After Jiang resigns from his positions as the Party's general secretary and the state president, he will still control Beijing's general policy direction and be prone to intervening in political crises or controversies. Scobell contended that Jiang's continued status as China's paramount leader will help ensure an important degree of continuity in U.S.-China relations.

Scot Tanner of Western Michigan University agreed that Jiang's designated successor, Hu Jintao, is likely to inherit Jiang's general secretaryship and presidency, while Jiang will emulate Deng by continuing to control the Chinese military and rule from "behind the curtain." According to Tanner, Hu's dilemma is that anything he does to strengthen his own power base risks eroding Jiang's trust; but actions designed to reassure Jiang risk leaving Hu too weak when Jiang passes from the scene. At present, Hu has apparently promoted a noteworthy but hardly overwhelming cadre of allies into significant Party and state posts. No matter whether Jiang really trusts Hu, Tanner argued, Jiang lacks the power to dislodge Hu as designated successor and build sufficient support for an alternative candidate in Hu's place. However, once Hu takes over the general secretaryship next year, the willingness of Jiang to stand by Hu during a major political crisis will become the single greatest question in Hu's effort to beat the successor's dilemma.

Cheng Li of Hamilton College challenged four widespread misperceptions in the West regarding China's political succession:

1) Chinese leaders are ineffective, politically-rigid and shortsighted;
2) A vicious power struggle is going on among various factions;
3) Chinese leaders can be divided into dichotomous groups such as hardliners vs. reformers; and
4) Since some fourth generation leaders were trained in the United States, they may form a pro-American force in China's policy-making circle.

Li contended that the fourth generation of leaders is less dogmatic, more capable and more diversified compared to previous political generations in the Party's history. Chinese politics has shifted from an all-powerful single leader to a greater collective leadership, and Chinese leaders are more likely to unite than to fight among themselves. Li believed Jiang's successors will likely push Jiang aside and accelerate China's political reform, but modify the pace and emphasis of economic reforms. Western-trained Chinese leaders will still be a minority in the foreseeable future, and China's new leaders are cynical about the moral superiority of the United States, Li concluded.

Carol Hamrin of George Mason University argued in her commentary that China is unlikely to have sweeping change during the period of power succession. Jiang may not entirely leave China's political stage after the Party's 16th Congress, and political reform in China will remain marginal, given the widespread money politics and ongoing neo-conservatism in China. On the other hand, social issues, the global context, and the factors of Hong Kong and Taiwan will continue to force China's new leaders to be more open and transparent in dealing with domestic and international affairs.

Following the seminar, two of the four speakers, Scot Tanner and Cheng Li, discussed China's political succession with a group of senior congressional staffers at a February 22 Capitol Hill breakfast. Participants explored China's political succession and its implications for several important factors, including China's WTO membership, Beijing's hopes to host the 2008 Olympic Game, the Falun Gong and human rights issues, and the unstable mainland-Taiwan relations.

There was a general consensus that political succession in China is very complicated and that the United States should be prepared for various scenarios regarding China's political future and U.S.-China relations.

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