Politics & Policy

A Chinese Andropov?

Leaders may change, but Communist totalitarianism has staying power.

September 19, 2004, marked the start of a new political era in modern China. With President Hu Jintao finally assuming command of the Chinese military–a role that had been retained by his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, since the latter’s semi-retirement in 2002-03–the transfer of power to the so-called “fourth generation” of Communist leaders appears to have been completed.

The abrupt end to two years of power-sharing between Hu and Jiang comes as a surprise to many observers. Until this very month, there were few indications that Jiang, 78, was ready to concede the cornerstone of his influence: chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Unfortunately, the fact that he has done so is now being cited by apologists for the regime as evidence that China’s one-party system has achieved a new level of maturity and stability.

This viewpoint is admittedly difficult to rebut, in light of what has transpired since late 2002. Then, the regime’s detractors erroneously speculated that Jiang would not only keep his CMC title, but also the party-secretary post. Ever since, they have maintained that Jiang remains a dominant influence through his CMC chairmanship and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The transfer of the post to Hu, 61, effectively negates that suggestion.

So Beijing may have just now cleared its greatest political hurdle since the 1989 Tiananmen crisis and its aftermath. The implications of this for China and the world are profound, and are not particularly encouraging. A confident Hu Jintao might now consolidate his power and establish a post-Jiang political structure that alleviates some of China’s most glaring systemic vulnerabilities, yet leaves the party’s monopoly on national governance intact.

Some have wondered whether Hu is a closet reformer sympathetic to Western institutions. But his true political views are less important than two other factors: First, how much of a reformer can he be? And second, how much of a reformer must he be? To neither of these questions is the current answer auspicious for far-reaching political liberalization.

Hu’s room for maneuvering has been expanded by Jiang’s retirement, but the latter’s fourth-generation allies in the central committee will limit Hu’s latitude for bold policy shifts. On the other hand, having bested Jiang’s attempt to marginalize him, Hu is no longer pressured to distinguish himself from his predecessor. Thus, Hu’s most politically promising approach is to rule moderately and shun policies that represent reversals from the Jiang era, thereby solidifying his authority at a measured pace. Whatever reformist agenda he may have will be tempered by the need to accommodate the departed Jiang’s faction. In the near term, there is a strong incentive for both Hu and his rivals to govern by consensus and compromise.

Rather than become a Chinese Gorbachev, Hu is more likely to develop a platform similar to that of Yuri Andropov, the Soviet KGB chief who briefly ruled the USSR from 1982 to 1984. Best known in the West for his repression of dissidents and confrontational attitude toward Ronald Reagan, Andropov was no obstinate hardliner domestically: Not only did he earn respect by fighting corruption, but it was with his backing that Gorbachev himself rose to the party’s senior ranks. Andropov’s death after only 15 months at the top cut short his nascent attempt to reform the party-state from within, but to this day many wonder if, had he lived longer, he could have effected a gradual transformation of the USSR and precluded its spectacular breakup.

Improving the party’s ability to police itself has been a recurring hope of Communist systems, but Hu’s China is in better shape to follow this path than its precursors. This is largely thanks to Beijing’s status as a rising global power to be accommodated. Spearheaded by multinational corporations, a pro-China lobby wields substantial influence from Washington to Taipei, complicating the free world’s response to Beijing’s rising strategic challenge. The prospect of nearly another decade of stable Communist rule–Hu is likely to secure a second term as party secretary in 2007–is sure to sharpen the polarization between those who welcome China’s ascent and those who feel threatened by it.

To date, Hu has tried to make his mark as a populist concerned for those Chinese left behind by the vaunted economic boom. His efforts to mitigate China’s sources of instability–primarily corruption and income inequality–will probably have very limited impact but suffice to keep the lid on major unrest, at least until the 17th party congress in 2007. Should Hu decisively consolidate his position at the congress–a move that would be signaled by shuffling out some of Jiang’s former underlings–he will finally have the means to pursue his own agenda with little restraint, whatever that agenda may be.

The new Hu Jintao era may become notable more for its similarities to the preceding era than for its differences. Hu has inherited not only the myriad problems confronting the government of China, but a brittle system to manage those problems. Absent a solid framework to handle political differences, clearing near-term obstacles invariably leaves more fundamental paradoxes unaddressed. No dictatorship can be expected to democratize of its own accord, and even history’s rare exceptions generally required an impetus beyond the regime’s control. Until such an event or trend presents itself, the world will continue to grapple with the conundrum that is modern China.

Pan Hu is an IT analyst living in the Washington, D.C., area active in the Chinese dissident community.

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