Leadership and Political Change in China
(28-30 May 2003)



Executive Summary:  On May 28-30, 2003, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies held a conference on the important changes occurring in China’s political bodies, especially the leadership change.  The conference brought together talented diplomats, prominent practitioners and leading academics from 6 countries. As political power is smoothly transferred in China, it marks the first power transition without a political crisis or the death of the top leader in the history of the People's Republic of China. This conference, “Leadership and Political Transition in China,” looks at what the leadership changes mean for China and the world.   The following is a summary of the key findings from the conference:


Leadership and Political Change in China Will Not Be Disruptive on Either a National or International Level. China continues to emphasize the three goals of modernization, national reunification, and world peace with common development. China sees an increase of common interests among the great powers after September 11.  However, the political and leadership change provides a golden opportunity for looking at the way institutions are being utilized in China as well as clarifying distinctions between the State and the Party.  While most of the political leadership is devoted to retain—and perhaps revising and enhancing—the Party, some change seems to be almost inevitable.  The very complexity of the new political reality, spurred on by the economic development, in China demands it.  The elite politics played out in the 16th Party Congress and the 10th national Congress underscore that some of the basic rules of the game for political succession in China have not changed.  It remains modestly institutionalized and not substantially transparent.  Explanations were offered of generational change, factional politics, and the increasing importance of formal structure of a political process.


The Fourth Generation Leadership Have Been Assuming Positions of Power Over the Past Few Decades.  Therefore, the policies and personalities of these new leaders are fairly well known to China watchers.  All members of the fourth generation leadership were born in the late 1930s or early 1940s.  All have at least a college education, survived the Cultural Revolution, and while born in the wealthier eastern regions of China, have also worked in the poorer western regions.  These fourth generation leaders have little international experience, but have a thorough understanding of the national problems besetting China. Public sentiment in China following the SARS epidemic seems to have strengthened the hand of the two core leaders, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, whose candor and highly visible management of the SARS epidemic improved their legitimacy within the Party and among the public. This is in keeping with both Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao’s focus on issues of social justice as the immediate defining goal of their administration. The SARS crisis prompted the firing of Zhang Wenkang, the health minister, and Meng Xuenong, the mayor of Beijing, as a symbolic admission of the State’s failure to deal effectively with SARS.  In place of these two officials, vice-premier Wu Yi (a woman) has been placed in charge of the health ministry and Wang Qishan is mayor of Beijing; both are known more for their ability than for their political connections.


The State and Party Are Gradually Separating Which Raises Questions for the Military.  Under the current one party system, the essence of State-Party relations lies in how the Party pursues and exerts public power. The Chinese State has moved from being a highly centralized state, coercive and authoritarian in the Mao era to a more diffuse entity.  The reform era has unleashed several waves of decentralization, although the State and the Party continue to have a top-down centralized nature with control over most information.  The problem of ineffective and open reporting of social and economic problems is aggravated by the lack of internal and external checks. Economic reforms have made society much more mobile.  Many travel through the country looking for work, in addition to the urban residents who travel for business and pleasure. A new trend in media openness is emerging, but is likely to be constrained in the short term.  Calls for reform of social security, unemployment benefits and the health care system are openly appearing in the newspapers and thus seem to indicate a genuine desire to pursue these reforms under the rubric of social justice.  With the increased pressure to improve the legal system, the National People’s Congress—the technical lawmaking body—has gained importance.  Nonetheless, the Party still controls this part of the State and determines the major leadership issues.  The future of State-Party relations may evolve to transform the electoral system, strengthen the congressional system, and change the functions of government from order-giving to service-providing without fundamentally changing the Party. 


This gradual separation of Party and State has important implications for the military as well.  While the relationship between the Party and the military has been the most important one in civil-military relations, the process of transforming the military from a purely Party army into more of a State military bound to uphold a law-based State grounded in constitutionalism, continues to be debated in China. As the military becomes more and more professionalized, it is slowly de-politicized. It remains the Party that makes all senior military personnel promotion and appointment decisions, but it is the State that makes the military funding decisions.  The growing attention to codification and constitutionalism in China results in an evolving and complex set of relationships between the military and the Party and the State.


The Chinese Communist Party Is Undergoing Important Changes.  The importance of good governance is recognized but the legitimacy of the Party relies on its historical heritage as well as its modern changing nature, which Jiang Zemin has tried to capture in the “Three Represents.”  A concept that the new leadership has promised to develop, the “Three Represents” includes an attempt to make the Party more representative of the majority of the people in China.  The Party as a monolithic and all persuasive party is being transformed into a catchall party, as Jiang’s “Three Represents” requires.  China’s change follows a pattern of transition seen elsewhere in East Asia from a hard authoritarian system to a soft authoritarian system.  The economic basis of the Party is being largely undermined by the market system.  Ideology of the Party no longer serves as a belief system for the people.  Ordinary people no longer have to perform politically correctly in order to qualify for housing, household goods, or food coupons.  Under the market system, if people are not happy with their work, they quit.  If people are not happy with their locale, they move.  These dual elements dramatically decrease the Party’s control over people’s lives. Preventing corruption remains a serious concern for the Party and no one is more concerned about it than the Party leaders themselves.  From April 23 to May 9, three ministerial officials received life in prison or death sentences because of corruption.   Similarly, village elections were introduced to deal with both corruption and legitimacy of the party at the local level.  Finally, the days of all social organizations being subordinate to the Party are gone forever.  It is safe to say that China’s transformation away from a standard communist system has reached the point of no return.  However, Chinese leaders do not approach democratic institutions as an end in themselves but rather by their effectiveness in enhancing China’s quest for wealth, power and stability as well as dealing with the problems of corruption, lawlessness and inequality.


China’s New Leaders Face Many Economic Issues. While China’s economic reforms have produced a burgeoning middle class in the major cities and urban areas, China’s new leaders face many questions: whether the 7% economic growth rate can be realized, how to increase rural incomes, how to relieve unemployment pressures, how to promote balanced development between western and eastern regions, and how to maintain stability while deepening reform.  Chinese leaders depend on the country’s small and medium size firms to continue the economic growth of the 1990s, but they are enthralled with the concept of building large firms, which rightly or wrongly, are seen as the foundation of US economic power as well as the key element in the ‘economic miracles’ of neighboring Japan and South Korea, whose success China hopes to imitate.  However, China does not have sufficient state wealth or capacity to create these large economic engines and has relied instead on foreign direct investment, which has forced the necessary institutional changes that a successful transition to a market economy requires, but are often difficult to achieve.


There is Little to Suggest That There Will be a Dramatic Shift in China’s Overall Foreign Policy for the Foreseeable Future.  Jiang Zemin seems determined to leave his lasting imprint on China through its foreign and security policy, and the new leadership appears more immediately concerned with domestic policy than with foreign policy.  The Chinese leadership has long realized that globalization would force changes in governmental and foreign behavior, which--like the WTO--has been reflected in Beijing’s willingness to play the game according to international norms.  For instance, China dealt with the Iraqi issue in a pragmatic way.  While not offering support for an invasion of Iraq, China was far more muted in its opposition than Russia or France.  In another instance, China and the US had long professed stability on the Korean Peninsula as a common goal and yet they had radically different policy prescriptions for how to deal with the crisis.  Nonetheless, China worked hard on the North Korean nuclear issue and hosted a tripartite talk in Beijing in April, perhaps because their policy prescriptions are moving closer to those of the US. In yet another instance, despite considerable increases in the disparity between China and Southeast Asia, their relationship has vastly improved.  In creating normalcy, the improved quality of China’s diplomatic leadership and the cautious deference of Southeast Asia have been decisive.  Overall, China’s foreign policy has been more pragmatic in terms of relationship building, more self-confident in attitude, and more active in international involvement.

 While It is Early to Comment on the Implications of The New Chinese Leadership on US-China Relations, Sino-American Relations Have Achieved a High Level of Accord Over the Course of the Past Six Months.  This is a reflection of the new found strategic realities in which the US has been operating since September 11, 2001.  For the US, China has become a partner in meeting the new security challenges.  China recognizes the present geopolitical reality that any great power must be a cooperative partner of the US if it wants to play a greater constructive role in international affairs.  China’s leaders have recognized an opportunity to use these new strategic realities to meet some of their fundamental objectives:  stability in the Sino-American relationship; the continuation of Jiang Zemin’s foreign policy legacy; and the enhancement of their domestic security.  This does not mean that there are not significant policy differences between the two countries or that this partnership will continue at the current level of mutual accommodation.  There is still a lack of effective crisis management mechanisms and a lack of mutual trust between the two countries.  The US continues to desire and to work toward evolution in China’s political system, and many in China still perceive the US as a significant obstacle to China’s growing status as a regional power.


Asia-Pacific Security Is Increasingly Reliant on Understanding the Rise of China and Forecasting China’s Projected Growth.  China’s new leaders appear posed to deal with the massive domestic issues that China faces as a result of its economic changes.  The realities of these economic changes seem to be forcing some political accommodation in terms of increased institutionalization and rational legal processes and village elections.  While China’s new leaders appear determined to hold on to the one Party system for as long as possible, they are well aware that adjustments need to be made in addressing these domestic pressures.  If the SARS epidemic is taken as one example, then the increased openness and transparency bode well for political transformation in China.  There is no indication, however, that this will be the sole or decisive model for dealing with crises in China.  Focusing on these domestic issues, the foreign policy of China seems set into its current pattern of increased participation in the international system based on a cooperative relationship with the US and abiding by international norms.  This seems to fit into what Southeast Asia has chosen for its relations with China.  It has had some limited impact on the Korean Peninsula crisis.