The much-anticipated 16th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which ended in early November, followed the classic rhythm in China studies: optimism alternating with cynicism, certainty giving way to ambiguity. Many observers believed that Jiang Zemin would step down, thus signifying the first institutionalized transition of power in the country. Yet this optimistic view was undermined by Jiang’s decision to pass on only his post of general secretary of the Party to his successor, Hu Jintao, but to retain his chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Combined with the fact that Jiang’s cronies now occupy two-thirds of the seats on the newly formed nine-member standing committee of the Politburo makes observers even more cynical about this political succession.

The leadership selection of this congress seemed like a traditional game, in which the ruler decided the rules and manipulated the outcomes. It is too early, however, to announce the real winners and losers of Jiang’s game. The outgoing Party chief’s attempt to cling to power and his seeming “political triumphs” might in fact have revealed his own weaknesses and insecurities. Jiang has lost a great opportunity to “keep abreast of the times”–the phrase that he frequently used in the report he gave to the congress. Jiang has also lost his credibility, especially in the eyes of those who thought he would make this generational transition of power real and complete.

Ironically, Jiang’s failure to contribute to China’s institutional development helps to enhance Hu’s popularity. Though Hu is surrounded by Jiang’s protégés on the standing committee, these protégés are also vulnerable due to the political favoritism through which they obtained their seats. Crucial to any assessment of Chinese elite politics today, especially at a time when various factions are jockeying for power in this still on-going leadership succession, is an understanding of Hu’s advantages and weaknesses.

Similar to previous political successions in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the power struggle among individual leaders also reflects the conflicting interests of political forces in the country at large. To a certain extent, Hu represents some important political trends and regional interests. Specifically, Hu has three principal advantages. First, he has been fortunate to ascend to power at an optimum time. Second, he has the advantage of coming from an inland region. Third, he has gained broad-based support due to his low-profile personality. The three Chinese terms for this are tianshi, dili, and renhe.

First, Hu has tianshi–ascending to power at an optimum time. Hu’s rise to the top leadership has corresponded with the development of two important concepts in Chinese elite politics. First is the so-called “fourth generation” and the second is “institutionalized political succession.” Most China scholars have attributed these two concepts to Deng Xiaoping. While this is largely valid, it overlooks the fact that Jiang has also enthusiastically promoted these two concepts, at least up until this summer. The categorization of elite generations is highly political. By identifying Deng as the core of the second generation and himself as the core of the third, Jiang consolidated his political legitimacy as a successor to Deng in the early 1990s. More importantly, by identifying Hu as a leading member of the fourth generation, Jiang diminished the pressure of potential contenders for power in his own generation, such as Qiao Shi, Li Peng, Zhu Rongji, and Li Ruihuan.

The notion of the “fourth generation” and the institutional mechanisms such as “term limits” and the “age requirements for retirement,” which were used by Jiang to consolidate his own power, are now in line with Hu’s mandate. People may not know much about Hu, the man who is “famous for being unknown,” but those who care about an orderly transition of power in China all hope that Hu will take charge soon after the 16th Party Congress. This is because he personifies the trend of political institutionalization in China. Not surprisingly, during the election of the 16th central committee, Hu received the highest number of votes from the delegates (out of the 2,132 delegates, only one did not vote for him).

In contrast, Jiang’s inclination to play a behind-the-scenes role as the paramount leader, his implicit decision to rely on the military in domestic politics if necessary, his political manipulation in the power transition, and the favoritism shown to his cronies are all things that the Chinese public find disheartening. Unless public opinion carries no weight at all, Jiang and his cronies will have to take a popular leader like Hu Jintao seriously in the months and years to come.

Hu’s second principal advantage is dili–the advantage of coming from an inland region. As we know, one of the main criticisms against Jiang is that he has cultivated a web of patron-client ties based on his Shanghai connections. The so-called Shanghai Gang has held many important posts in the national leadership and has directed enormous resources to Shanghai during the past decade. This has created tension between Shanghai and other regions, especially poor inland provinces. Seven out of nine standing committee members in the 16th Party Congress are from the coastal region, including three from Shanghai.

In contrast to Jiang, Hu has thus far not been seen as a leader who is obsessed with patron-client ties. In fact, no one in the new Politburo is seen as Hu’s protégé. With the exception of the promotion of his long-time personal secretary, Ling Jihua, to the post of deputy director of the General Office of the CCP Central Committee in 2000, Hu has not directly promoted any provincial or ministerial leaders.

Comparing Hu Jintao with Zeng Qinghong, Jiang’s chief strategist and a political heavyweight on the new standing committee reveals some interesting contrasts. Hu and Zeng represent two different political forces and geographical regions. These differences are reflected in their distinct personal careers and political associations. Hu comes from a non-official family background. His political association has largely been with the Chinese Communist Youth League. Hu has spent most of his adult life in some of the poorest provinces in China’s inland region, including 14 years in Gansu, three years in Guizhou, and four years in Tibet. In contrast, Zeng is a princeling with strong family ties. Zeng has thus far spent almost his entire career in coastal regions such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong. This explains why in recent years Zeng has attempted to form a political coalition primarily among leaders from the coastal region.

A comparison of Hu and Zeng perhaps also explains the reason why Hu is not eager to form his own faction. If a factional fight breaks out between Hu and Zeng in the future, a majority of provincial and ministerial leaders will likely side with Hu rather than Zeng, because of their resentment of power manipulation by the Shanghai Gang. This factional fight, of course, is by no means inevitable. But if it does happen, leaders in China’s inland, especially those who had backgrounds in the Youth League (many of them now have seats on the 16th Central Committee), will likely become Hu’s most valuable political allies. This means that while Jiang, Zeng, and their cronies may constitute the majority in the Politburo, Hu’s followers control the central committee.

Meanwhile, it is not difficult to forecast some policy adjustments under Hu’s leadership. Hu will likely make a greater effort to reallocate resources from the coast to the inland in order to reduce regional economic disparity. The establishment of a social safety net, the stimulation of demand in the domestic market, and the development of an infrastructure in China’s inland region will be part of Hu’s most important agenda. A more balanced regional economic development in the country is rational and timely.

Hu’s third principal advantage is renhe–a broad-based support due to his low-profile personality. At least until now, Hu is acceptable to both the liberal and the conservative wings of the Party. He is open-minded about future political reform in China. During his presidency of the Central Party School, he supervised some bold research programs on political reforms, especially the reform of the CCP. Yet Hu’s widely publicized television speech in response to the embassy bombing in Belgrade was an example of his effective nationalistic appeal during a time of crisis.

More importantly, Hu is known for his skills in coalition-building and consensus-making, which reflect a defining characteristic of the fourth generation. Due to his own weaknesses, Hu has to be sensitive to the needs and concerns of other senior leaders and their various political contingencies. His low-profile personality and his image of refraining from building his own patron-client network may also help him fulfill his role.

Two contrasting scenarios loom large in assessing Hu’s political future. According to the first scenario, Hu does not necessarily intend to challenge Jiang; Jiang in turn may not have any incentive to replace Hu. Jiang probably will, as some China watchers observe, pass on his presidency of the PRC and his chairmanship of the CMC to Hu next March when the 10th National People’s Congress convenes. Hu’s relationship with Zeng Qinghong is both competitive and cooperative. At least until now, there is no evidence that Hu and Zeng have been engaged in a power struggle. Jiang’s patrons on the standing committee are by no means a monolithic group. These cronies may split among themselves before they fight against Hu, especially since they need to climb on Hu’s bandwagon. Hu now”officially” holds the most important position in China, and thus he can build his own network of influence, if he is smart.

The second scenario, however, argues that Hu is politically too weak and too naïve to effectively manage the political apparatus of this most populous nation in the world. His popular image for not being obsessed with factional networking will have a huge cost: it alienates him from his own friends and long-time associates. The fact that none of his friends has a seat in the Politburo may alienate his followers. More importantly, because of the lack of his own supporters in the top leadership, Hu will have a difficult time implementing his policy initiatives. In addition, policy differences among standing committee members regarding resource allocation, economic disparity, official corruption, social unrest, and ethnic tensions are so fundamental that Hu will have trouble reaching consensus. As a result, Hu will eventually face the same destiny as Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang.

While I believe that the first scenario is more likely, no one can eliminate the possibility that the second will occur. The next two or three years will test Hu’s political strategy, wisdom, and capabilities. But in a far more important sense, it will test whether China can take a major step toward a more institutionalized transition to power-sharing. China watchers will never agree about whether this institutionalized power transition can succeed. But if it fails, this most populous country–and the entire world–will be profoundly affected.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.