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China’s New Rulers: The Path to Power

Following are the members of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee, whose election is expected in November 2002, listed by their rank according to protocol, with their main Party and future state positions. Ages are given as of November 2002; the positions listed are in addition to the policy-making duties of PBSC membership.

  1. Hu Jintao, 59; Party General Secretary; State President; Central Military Commission Chairman. He is described as the “Core” of the Fourth Generation.

  2. Li Ruihuan, 68; National People’s Congress Chairman

  3. Wen Jiabao, 60; Premier of the State Council

  4. Wu Bangguo, 61; Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Chairman

  5. Luo Gan, 67; Secretary, Central Disciplinary Inspection Commission

  6. Zeng Qinghong, 63; Secretary, Party Secretariat

  7. Li Changchun, 58; Executive Vice Premier (a likely choice still under consideration)

1.

China’s new leaders will soon be presented to the world. Beginning in November the men who have governed China since the 1989 Tiananmen events, led by Jiang Zemin, will make way for a new group of rulers, whom Chinese refer to as the Fourth Generation. (Mao’s generation was the first; Deng Xiaoping’s the second; Jiang’s the third.) They will be members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) of the Chinese Communist Party—the leaders who exercise supreme power in China. Most of the details of the lineup we report here have been in place for over a year and, when this article went to press, had survived last-minute negotiations at the Communist Party’s annual summer meeting at the beach resort of Beidaihe. Appointments to military and government posts will not be final until March 2003, when the National People’s Congress meets to formalize them, but are also unlikely to change unless there is a military or social crisis. The transition ends a relatively quiet yet intensely fought battle over succession and suggests that the Chinese Communist Party has the ability to renew itself at the top. The next generation may, however, take China in surprising new directions.

Following their formal election at a Central Committee meeting of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in mid-November, after the sixteenth Party Congress, the members of the new PBSC will, by tradition, appear briefly to be photographed by the domestic and international press. If past precedent is followed, they will walk into a carpeted room in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People in their order of rank within the Standing Committee. They will smile for the cameras, and quickly leave without answering questions. In this way the results of a long struggle for power in the world’s most populous country will be shown to the public, and immediately disappear. If things go as they wish, for the remainder of their term in office this group of men will remain as mysterious as they are now.

First to walk before the cameras will be Hu Jintao, age fifty-nine, a man with glossy hair and a characteristically deferential smile, who has been chosen as general secretary, the Party’s highest office. A one-time hydropower engineer, Hu long ago became a prominent apparatchik, having been elected to the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee as its youngest member in 1992. In March 2003, when the national parliament meets, he will assume the additional posts of state president and chairman of the Central Military Commission. He thus will be the successor to Jiang Zemin, who occupied all three positions. In China the top leaders of Party institutions also have power over government ministries and military forces.

Following Hu into the room—if no last-minute surprise is engineered by Jiang Zemin—will be a former carpenter and former mayor of Tianjin, Li Ruihuan, age sixty-eight, who is known for his unusually colorful language, which has, at times, been critical of other Party leaders for their rigidity. In March 2003 Li is scheduled to take over as head of the increasingly outspoken parliament, the National People’s Congress.

In third place will be Wen Jiabao, sixty years old, a mild-mannered insider who is known in the West, if at all, for his televised appearance in Tiananmen Square at the height of the 1989 protests at the side of the recently defeated Party secretary Zhao Ziyang, who had opposed the use of force against the students. Since then Zhao has been under house arrest. But by finding other patrons and concentrating on economic reforms, Wen survived the more conservative years that followed. In March 2003 he will succeed Zhu Rongji as premier—the head of the State Council in charge of all government agencies in China.

The appointments of these three have been widely anticipated. The next three members will be more of a surprise. After Wen will come the Shanghai technocrat Wu Bangguo, sixty-one, a one-time specialist in vacuum-tube technology whose fourth ranking disguises the fact that he lost out in the competition for the premiership. He will be head of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an assembly intended to show the support the Chinese Communist Party receives from distinguished Chinese who are not Party members.

Fifth in line will be the stern-looking internal security chief Luo Gan, at sixty-seven the second oldest in the group, yet tall, fit, and energetic. A metallurgist holding the prestigious rank of senior engineer, Luo is the only member of the new leadership to have been trained overseas—for eight years in East Germany. Since the 1980s he has been the closest associate of Li Peng, the second-ranking Party leader and chairman of the National People’s Congress, who is now leaving office. Li and Luo formed a close relationship when they supervised the police and intelligence agencies during and after the 1989 Tiananmen crisis. They did so on the orders of the Elders of the CCP—the retired Party leaders, led by Deng Xiaopeng, who retained influence through their prestige and through Deng’s control of the military. Since then Luo has consolidated control of China’s security apparatus, which he has used to arrest large numbers of criminals and dissidents, while he also seeks to reform it so that there are fewer gross abuses in courts and prisons.

The sixth-ranking member will be Zeng Qinghong, Jiang Zemin’s most trusted aide. Another engineer, trained in automatic control systems, Zeng is the son of an early Party leader and hence a man with many connections among the Party elite and their privileged children, who are known as the “princelings.” Zeng was the only official Jiang Zemin brought with him to Beijing from Shanghai in 1989, when the Elders promoted him over several more senior and powerful men to the Party’s number one job. An unusually skillful political tactician, Zeng was the invisible mastermind behind Jiang’s brilliantly managed consolidation of power. Of all the new leaders, Zeng is the least constricted by the Party’s traditionally bureaucratic ways.

These six men will wield the dominant power in China for the next five years. Indeed, all but Li and Luo are young enough to serve two terms. Ranking below them will be one or two additional Standing Committee members as well as more than a dozen Politburo members, all technocrats who are not very different in background or outlook from the top six. The persons who may prove most noteworthy in this second tier are Xi Jinping, forty-nine, and Li Keqiang, forty-seven, who have been chosen as top leaders from the Fifth Generation of leaders under fifty. If all goes well, one of them will inherit control of China in 2012.

There has been much speculation about whether Jiang would really leave all three of his posts—as head of the Party, the state, and the military—and whether he would be able to continue to rule from behind the scenes. There have also been many questions about who will make up the new Politburo Standing Committee, how they were chosen, and what they stand for.

The most convincing answers to these questions, we believe, are to be found in a remarkable new Chinese-language book based on the confidential reports that the CCP’s highly trusted, secretive Organization Department compiled to assist the Politburo in considering candidates for the highest offices. Disidai (The Fourth Generation) will be published in November by Mirror Books, a US-based Chinese-language publisher.1 Its author is a Party insider who uses the pseudonym Zong Hairen and has written previously about politics among the top Chinese rulers.2 Highly placed associates in Beijing provided Zong with draft versions of the Organization Department’s reports, intending to help him to publish a book based on them. Zong Hairen in turn has authorized us to present in English the information he received.

We have been able to read the manuscript of Disidai carefully and have questioned the author at length about it as well as about his background and motives. We are persuaded that the book is both authentic and important. Zong, who completed the manuscript of his book in February 2002, has given us additional information so that our story is current as of late August, when this article went to press.3

2.

For many, particularly in US official circles, Zong Hairen’s portrait of the new leaders will be reassuring, since it shows them to be determined modernizers, intent on integrating China’s economy with the world and on maintaining good relations with the United States. They are mostly competent managers, with wide experience in China’s complex Party-state bureaucracy, pragmatic technocrats who are capable of keeping order and promoting development in the world’s most populous country. Some of them are willing to allow a degree of political competition with the CCP and to trust the Chinese press and television with more freedom to criticize the performance of low- and mid-level officials.

For other outside observers, however, Zong’s portrait may be frightening. He writes of a group of men who believe in authoritarian rule as a precondition for modernizing China’s economy. They believe in crushing open dissent against Communist rule and in deterring crime by widespread use of the death penalty. They believe that their government has been more than generous to the residents of Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, and have no sympathy for the grievances or aspirations of the people in these places. Although they share many Western economic values, they share few Western moral values. They expect strategic competition with the West and want to maintain control of Tibet, assert control over Taiwan, and use their ties with Russia and Europe to check what they view as overbearing American power. Yet they believe that the economic interests of the US and the other Western nations dictate that they maintain good relations with China.

Unlike the turbulent struggles over successors to the top leadership that have been the rule in China since the Communist takeover in 1949, this is the first succession to be carried out by an orderly process. Despite much speculation throughout the world in the past few months—and by millions of concerned citizens in China who have been just as badly informed—the real surprise in Zong’s book is that five of the six top leaders were secretly chosen during the last two years. Li Ruihuan’s appointment is the only one in any doubt, because Jiang Zemin is still looking for a way to derail it.

  1. 1

    It can be ordered through Mirrorbooks.com.

  2. 2

    Zong Hairen, Zhu Rongji zai 1999 (Zhu Rongji in 1999) (Carle Place, N.Y.: Mirror Books, 2001); English translation, edited and with an introduction by Andrew J. Nathan, in Chinese Law and Government, January– February and March–April 2002. Zong has also published a series of articles in the Hong Kong Economic Journal (Xinbao) since 2001.

  3. 3

    A book-length version of our report will be published in November by New York Review Books under the title China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files.

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