China’s Leadership Transition

 (9 April 2002)



Executive Summary:  On April 9, 2002, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies held a conference the Ninth People’s Congress, the impact on foreign policy, and the Fourth Generation Leadership coming to power in China.  This conference was the first of a set of conferences contributing to this effort and to the Center’s overall objective of promoting security-related dialogue and building understanding and relationships in the region.  The following is a summary of the key conclusions from the conference:


The Fourth Generation Leadership are Savvy Politicians Who are Currently in Their Late 50s and Early 60s With Advanced Degrees in the Sciences: The careers and policy preferences of these new leaders were examined.  We are looking at another set of savvy technocrats who are willing to both follow the existing policies and will bring their own policies to help China emerge as a vibrant power. Most of these leaders came to age right before the Cultural Revolution and suffered the result of that upheaval.  They are more focused on national problems than on the international environment. There is an emerging consensus that Hu Jintao will be the next Party Secretary-General later this year. Several other of the Fourth Generation are also expected to move up including Zeng Qinghong and Wen Jiabao.  It is understood President Jiang Zemin wants a collective leadership to run China after his retirement as Secretary-General in 2002 and President in 2003. It is an open secret that Jiang wants to retain the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission for a few more years.


The Primary Outcome of the Ninth People’s Congress Was a Continued Focus on Economic Growth: The legitimacy of the Chinese government is based in great part on its ability to increase the economic well-being of the populace and enhance the economic strength of the country.  The Ninth People’s Congress focused on the challenges facing China’s impressive economic growth.  Social disparities are widening.  At this March 2002 Congress, Zhu Rongji announced a new social welfare system must be established and funds funneled to the unemployed and disadvantaged. Internal consumption will increase.   There are also corruption issues that have proved resistant to current policies. Continued economic reforms will necessitate political trade-offs and a measure of political reform.  Since no one in the fourth generation leadership will immediately have the power base to implement tough reforms, there will be a need for continued collective leadership.


The Impact on Foreign Policy of the Leadership Transition Will Initially Be Minimal Absent a Crisis: While there are certain to be changes within China as a result of the new leadership, foreign policy will largely continue the trend of increased Chinese integration into the international system.  This new leadership may be slightly more nationalistic and inward looking but it will continue the policy of international trade and engagement since it is the current path for economic development. While leadership changes can have a big impact on legal reforms, Hu Jintao will have little choice but to increase the prominence of law.  The transition to market economy requires continued reform for economic and political stability.  Some of the problems that have arisen center on the domestic debate between whether power, policies, and enforcement should be centralized or localized.  As China becomes a global player, through entrance to the WTO and other institutions, China will make more progress toward legal, political, and economic reform.


Corruption Persists Among the Issues the New Chinese Leadership Will Face:  Corruption continues to plague the Chinese system.  These leadership transition issues resonate in Chinese politics and in international affairs. Domestically the Chinese people vacillate between rule by law and rule by virtuous men.  The Confucian tradition was one of rule by virtuous men while the current world system favors rule by law.