Chinese Change of Guard Just Political Window Dressing?

BEIJING – The resignation of ex-president Jiang Zemin from his powerful post as commander-in-chief of the Chinese military heralds his impending political demise. However, his handover of authority to the younger President Hu Jintao signifies little imminent change in the political agenda of the ruling Communist party.

For the first time since he became party chief in 2002 and succeeding Jiang as president in 2003, Hu now assumes full control in China as a head of the state, party and military. By surrendering his last official post as chairman of the Central Military Commission, Jiang, 78, set the seal on the nation’s first peaceful transfer of power since 1949.

Hu, who is 16 years younger, now has the authority to push his alleged hidden agenda of political reforms – long rumored by party insiders to have been stifled by elderly Jiang. Through his control of the military, Jiang had commanded a rhetorical and hard-line approach to Taiwan and Hong Kong, while Hu advocated a policy of a "peaceful rise" of China.

Diplomats in Beijing believe Hu is behind an ongoing effort, both, to normalize China’s political system and improve its international image.

"There might not be bold statements in the state press, but Hu’s team has a much clearer idea about how to introduce a measure of democracy and political reform in the country," said one diplomatic source.

It is unclear though whether this is purely a measure of political window dressing to create an impression of more democracy and rule of law inside the Communist Party.

Hu’s first pronouncements since he assumed the post of military chief divulged little intention of launching speedy political reforms. By contrast, the new Chinese supremo showed firm commitment to sustaining the power monopoly of the Communist Party.

Speaking at the party plenum, which endorsed the power transfer last week, Hu urged the Communist Party to keep pace with time and modernize in order to sustain its 55-year-long grip over political power.

A communiqué issued at the end of the meeting stressed the party should maintain a "flesh and blood" relationship with people and stamp out pervasive corruption to survive the challenges of the 21st century. "The party must build up itself through reform and enhance its creativity, cohesive power and combat competence," the document said.

In a speech delivered also last week, Hu referred to Western-style democracy as a "blind ally" for China and said the country would pursue its own path.

In the months leading to the plenum, China’s cyber police had tightened control over the Internet and people who posted pro-democracy statements were arrested and thrown into prison.

China has shunned political reforms ever since a brief liberalization period in the late 1980s ended with the 1989 bloody crackdown on pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square.

Last year, Hu was reported to have planned the announcement of some moderate political reform in his fist major policy address on July 1 – the 82nd anniversary of the Communist Party.

But expectations of launching political experiments with "intra-party democracy" through competitive local elections and consultation of ordinary party members were left unfulfilled. Party elders, and, notably, Jiang who remained at the helm of Chinese military reportedly scrapped the reform blueprint after objections.

While Jiang’s resignation gives Hu a boost to stamp his authority on policy decisions that were once under Jiang’s tight security, doubts, however, remain about how much space would be given to Hu to maneuver.

The emphasis on party self-strengthening during this plenum underscores an understanding all Chinese communist leaders have shared since the country’s reform and opening up 25 years ago. The collapse of communist parties in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had provided bitter lessons, forcing Chinese leaders to call recurrently for the party’s modernization.

Hu’s new call for maintaining a "flesh-and-blood" relationship with the people reflects the realization of China’s leaders that the Soviet Communist Party collapsed because it lost its common touch and became alienated from the masses it purported to champion.

"By making the party’s governance an open topic, the plenum has sent an encouraging signal that the leadership has acknowledged the pitfalls and is willing to change with the times," said an editorial in the official China Daily last week.

Western experience with democracy is not a model for China, but the ruling party must adapt to change, warns Prof. Huang Zongliang, an academic in the School of International Studies at Beijing University.

"If we do not improve our capacities to govern, we will be in danger of losing power and the party can be ruined," Huang told IPS.

Both Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao could have heeded that warning. They have repeatedly spoken about the need to transform the Communist Party back into a party for the people and to make the government more responsive to the needs of the country’s ordinary citizens.