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China’s new leader signals change

Since Hu Jintao was named president and leader of China’s Communist Party in the past year, China has witnessed the first steps toward political reform since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. By Kari Huus.
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The birthday celebration of China’s communist party is usually a dour affair and the 82nd, marked on Tuesday, followed that tradition. That is likely just how Communist Party Secretary and President Hu Jintao wanted it. Even so, since Hu was named successor, China watchers have seen the first inklings of real political change since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. The question is how far the new leader will push his initiatives while avoiding political missteps.

There have been two important changes since last year’s birthday celebration.

First, the Chinese leadership under Jiang Zemin made the formal transfer of power to a new generation. Jiang, who had headed up the massive bureaucracy since shortly after the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, handed over both the presidency and leadership of the party to Hu, a 60-year-old bureaucrat who has climbed steadily, if inconspicuously, through the ranks over the years.

The smoothness of that transfer was historical, but its importance had a major caveat: 76-year-old Jiang is widely understood to wield power from backstage as the powerful chairman of the Communist Party commission that runs China’s military.

The second change came about because of an unstaged and unpredictable event: the SARS epidemic. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which started in southern China and then clobbered Beijing itself, presented an opportunity for the new leader to demonstrate a dramatically different style.

Uncovering SARS
After it became clear that some key officials had been covering up the spread of the illness, Hu took action. He presided over the sacking of more than 100 people who were seen as complicit in the coverup, including the country’s minister of health, who was a close associate of Jiang’s.

In April and May, Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao visited the provinces and SARS-affected cities, mingling among the people, stressing the need for accountability among government officials, and calling on the media to cover the situation comprehensively. They conceded that controlling the spreading illness was difficult. Jiang was notably silent, and then resurfaced in Shanghai, which was essentially SARS free. Meeting with India’s defense minister, he said the SARS situation was under control.

“It was too soon to say that,” says Zang Guohua, a former Beijing journalist who is now Washington bureau chief for Taiwan-owned CTI television. The contrast between Hu’s openness and Jiang’s old-style communist obfuscation was so striking, he says, that “it turned out to be a huge win for Hu and Wen and a big disaster for Jiang.” In addition, says Zang: “People felt that Jiang had fled the scene.”

The result, say many analysts, is that Hu has gained public support and consolidated power more quickly than expected. And Hu — who was a largely an unknown quantity before taking the Beijing’s top jobs — is signaling that for the first time in a decade, political reform of the stolid old-style machine is on the agenda.

Between the lines
On Tuesday, as is the tradition, Hu spoke to a communist gathering on the country’s ideological underpinnings. Though thick in rhetoric, what comes across between the lines can be important. The event has in the past been used to signal shifts in political direction.

Hu gave a nod to his patron Jiang by stressing the importance of a policy awkwardly named “Three Represents” — aimed at keeping the Communist Party as the center of China’s universe despite its increasingly capitalistic economy.

But this belies Hu’s own growing influence, and likely his more important point, which came later in his speech:

According to state newspapers, Hu also said the party should listen more closely to its 67 million members. The vaguely defined process is dubbed “party democratization.”

“To strengthen the building of the party system, the basic task is to ... guarantee the democratic rights of party members,” said a commentary in the main party newspaper, People’s Daily.

What Hu is suggesting is not yet defined, and certainly is not a revolution. The idea, analysts say, may mean a move to elect party leaders at lower levels of government rather than essentially appointing them. It may also mean that more party members who hold office are included in the debate on tough decisions — dozens of party members rather than a handful of elite — at the township, city and provincial levels. The one-party system is not in question at this juncture.

A powerful signal
Still, in a society that has emphasized stability over democracy for more than a decade, it is a powerful signal.

“To stress the need for democracy is huge step forward from the Jiang administration,” says Zang of CTI. “What we hope for is a consensus on the movement towards democracy. What kind of democracy ... that’s debatable,” Zang says, adding that multiparty democracy as seen in the West “is far, far away — beyond the horizon.”

Gang Lin, Asia Program associate at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., is cautiously optimistic about Hu’s moves toward power-sharing, though he says it may not lead to democracy, strictly defined. “It depends on the degree to which they adopt the experiment more broadly, the extent to which it becomes a rule” for the country.

“It is very clear (the government) wants to maintain one party rule,” he says. And he notes that Communist Party members who would be eligible to vote for leaders make up only 5 percent of China’s population. Still, he says that “this generation (of leaders) could be more daring to try things.”

Growing transparency
But there are interesting changes afoot reminiscent of the flurry of freedom in 1989, the Beijing Spring, before the harsh military crackdown.

At the end of March, Hu issued a directive calling on state media to spend less time covering official meetings and statements, and get down to earth, devoting more space to “reality, life and the masses.”

There have been setbacks in this trend but the overall direction appears to be toward more openness. China’s press in recent months has covered not only SARS, but devoted substantial resources to covering disasters such as an earthquake in western China and bombings at Qinghua University in Beijing.

There are at least marginal changes in the works for government officials, too. Hu and Wen have banned the traditional send-off and returning ceremonies for Chinese dignitaries going abroad. This ritual, which sent motorcades scurrying to and from Beijing’s Great Hall of the People with increasing regularity, has become impractical, not to mention unseemly, for a modern Chinese government.

Now there are rumors that the Chinese leadership may also abandon the annual ritual of summer rendezvous at the seaside resort of Beidaihe. Since the time of Mao Zedong, this informal retreat, entirely out of the public eye, has been where many of the biggest decisions about China’s future have been made.

While the elite Politburo is meeting, the media reports, at least in general terms, on the topics.

The changes are incremental, but nonetheless sparking optimism that greater political freedoms will follow China’s dramatic economic expansion.

Despite two decades of sweeping economic change and the loosening of social controls, the government still lashes out at any possible threat to the party’s monopoly on power.

Lengthy prison terms
Dissidents who tried to set up an opposition party have been sentenced to up to 13 years in prison. On Friday, an appeals court in China’s northeast upheld prison terms for two labor activists who were charged with trying to set up a branch of the party — an accusation that their families denied.

Exactly how far Hu would take reforms if he had free rein is open to debate.

For now, there are rumored tensions between Hu and the Jiang camp. That helps explain why Hu deflects praise for his handling of the SARS crisis, and pays homage to the “Three Represents” — a hallmark of Jiang Zemin’s philosophy.

As a product of the Communist Party, he has been around long enough to know the perils of moving too fast and not paying respects to his patron. Former Communist Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang was under house arrest and has hardly been seen since his ouster by patriarch Deng Xiaoping in 1989 for expressing his sympathy with protesting students.

Whatever his ultimate goals, Hu Jintao is likely to move cautiously until he finishes building his power base. “It’s a very, very difficult task of walking the tightrope,” says Zang. “The big prerequisite is not to offend Jiang and his men. ... It’s three steps forward, one step backward. … But in the end, that’s two steps forward, and that’s pretty good.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.