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China: Party Congress – Continuity and Change

The 17th National Congress (Beijing, 15- 21 October 2007) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), cannot be wished away as the usual five-year ritual; the event has been marked by a smooth transfer of power to a new leadership with Hu Jintao continuing at the helm of affairs and identification of next generation leaders having potentials to assume top posts in the next Congress in 2012. Secondly, for the first time in a party congress, the shift already taking place in the directions to national development strategy, away from a growth model of break-neck speed and towards the one aiming to achieve a balanced and sustainable growth, under the framework of Hu Jintao’s concept of “Scientific Outlook on Development’, has received formal endorsement as Party policy. Also unprecedented has been the strong bias shown by the CCP leadership on the occasion in favour of gradually strengthening inner-party democracy. Hu’s intentions to “make bold changes and innovations”, obviously arising out of compulsions, have received sharp focus.

New Leadership line-up

A 9-member Politburo Standing Committee, 25-member Politburo and a Central Committee (204 full and 167 alternate members) have been elected as the Congress ended. Hu Jintao’s election for a second term as Party General Secretary as well as Chairman of the Party Central Military Commission and that of Wen Jiabao as a member of the nine- member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) have been on expected lines. So has been the case with dropping of three other top leaders due to age factors (Wu Guanzheng who looked after party discipline and Luo Gan who was in charge of legal and security work, both from PBSC and Ms Wu Yi, from the Politburo). The non-inclusion in the party posts of Jiang Zemin protégé and Vice President Zeng Qinghong has however been a surprise. Zeng’s appointment as Congress Presidium Chairman gave hopes that he will be retained in the PBSC, in spite of his reaching 68 years of age. Luo Gan, who was of the same age in 2002, was allowed to enter the PBSC, but the same treatment has been denied to Zeng.

The average age of the PBSC members now is 62. In the preceding body, there was a predominance of engineers. In the present one, there are six members with background of Engineering, two of Law and Economics and one of business. The two who are expected to assume leadership positions in 2012(Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang) hold doctorate degrees. What is coming out clear is that top slots in the party are in the hands of technocrats. In 2002, leaders with Shanghai background were prominent in the highest policy making body. The latest PBSC has much wider representation.

There are no ideological differences now in the leadership of China. Factions could however exist on the basis of allegiance to personalities. In the PBSC, members known for their loyalty to Jiang Zemin/ Zeng Qinghong are five (Wu Bangguo, Jia Qinglin, Li Changchun, He Guoqiang and Zhou Yonggang). Xi Jinping, one of the rising stars, does not seem to have been close to Hu. Only two (Wen Jiabao and He Guoqiang), can be firmly categorized as Hu’s supporters. But Hu Jintao appears to be rising above factional politics. Indicators of the leader’s ability to build bridges have been the importance given by him to Jiang Zemin at the Party Congress and also the presence of veterans like Zhu Rongji, Li Peng, Wan Li, Song Ping and Hua Guofeng on the occasion.

Politics in China has reached a stage in which policies are becoming more important than factional differences. Any analysis of who is loyal to whom may be misleading. Instead, attention should be on the likely policy directions and their implications. From this point of view, it looks certain that an era of collective leadership is taking roots in China, making decisions on the basis of consensus. In spite of his acceptance in the Party as one of the originators in the field of theory, a must so far for all aspirants for supreme power, Hu has not been described in the Congress as ‘core’ of the fourth generation leadership in contrast to the treatment given to his three predecessors- Mao, Deng and Jiang Zemin. Confirming the collective nature of his leadership, Hu has himself stressed the need for “ leading bodies at all levels to become staunch collective leaderships”. Notable in the same vein, has been the Congress resolution asking for “rallying round the Central Committee”, dropping the hitherto adopted practice of naming the head of the Central Committee.

The Party Congress can claim following ‘firsts’

  1. “ Scientific Outlook on Development”

The concept needs more elaboration as it has been ‘unanimously’ included in the Party Constitution for the first time and is going to be the guiding ideology in China for the next five years. It was originally proposed in the 2003 Party Central Committee session. In plain terms, it means a balanced growth, reduction of income disparities and maintaining social justice. In Hu’s own jargon, it takes development as its essence and ‘putting people first’ as core and is a part of the “System of Theories of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. The leader by referring to ‘System’, for first time in a congress, has underscored the point that his concept is only a ‘continuation’ of the past party ideologies. Even then the originality of Hu Jintao’s concept stands out. Look at the justification given by Hu for his idea. The leader has said that China is in the ‘primary stage of socialism which will remain so for a long time’ and that his concept serves the purpose of dealing with the main contradiction in that stage between the “overgrowing material and cultural needs of the people and the low level of social production.” Not surprisingly, Hu Jintao’s theoretical contribution is now being officially depicted as one which is on par with those of Marx and Lenin and his predecessors Mao, Deng and Jiang Zemin.

  1. Political Reforms

On political reforms and democracy, Hu Jintao in his report, now approved by the Congress as a “ Marxist programmatic document”, has made no mention about the non-applicability of Western democratic models to China, in contrast to the categorical rejection of such models by a party spokesperson prior to the opening of the Congress. This omission could at best be tactical. The real position has been brought out by Hu himself by saying that “ the CCP is the core of leadership in directing the overall situation and coordinating the efforts of all quarters as well as leading the people in governing the country” and in this way totally, but indirectly, rejecting the Western models based on a multi-party system.

What is meaningful on the other hand has been Hu’s penchant seen in the Congress for inner-party democracy; he has asked for introducing a tenure system for delegates to the party congresses at all levels, improving the party procedure providing for open selection, competition for positions and multi candidate election and disallowing “arbitrary decision making by an individual or a minority of people.” As a demonstration of new approach, the elections to the new Central Committee and Central Discipline Inspection Commission membership, have turned out be more competitive than in the past. 8% of the nominees have reportedly been eliminated in the primary elections to the two organizations. Similar has been the case in respect of election by the new Central Committee of candidates to the latest Politburo and its Standing Committee. According to reports, 10% more candidates than the available seats were chosen.

Distinguishing the present Congress with the earlier ones, have been the specific measures announced by Hu to opening up the Party at lower levels – providing for a ‘System of voting’ by local party committees on major issues and appointing cadres, giving party congresses in selected counties, cities and districts a fixed term on a trial basis and gradually extending direct election of leading members in primary party organizations to more places.

Hu’s measures on inner party democracy starting with efforts at lower levels at the initial stage, is definitely a bold move, aimed at satisfying the growing demands in the country for checks and balances under the one-party rule. Reflecting the sensitivity of the subject, a senior Party organization official has given equal emphasis during the Congress to both democracy and unity in the party, implying that the process of promoting competition for top leadership posts, though now an emerging official policy, will be undertaken very carefully with the unity factor remaining always uppermost.

  1. Economy and Foreign Trade

For the first time, a clear per capita economic target has been fixed in a party congress- quadrupling the per capita GDP of the year 2000 by 2020. In the previous Congress, the target was quadrupling only the GDP value, with no mention of per capita. To the credit of Hu Jintao, he has been able to identify major problems and offer solutions. His mention of the need for an ‘environmental’ culture’ has been seen for the first time in a congress. Hu’s another important point has been that the Public ownership system will continue to be predominant, while conceding that private and public sectors will compete on ‘an equal footing’. The new Party Constitution has included private sector’s role for the first time.

There are flaws in Hu Jintao’s economic approach. He has talked about innovation in economy, but he still adheres to a line that puts the economy under the framework of “Four Cardinal Principles” of which the leadership of the Party is the main. The principles have been described by the leader as “political cornerstone for survival and development of the Party and Nation”. Hu fails to realize that innovation and Party control cannot go together. Secondly, the leader has been silent on two important issues – the negative impact coming from the huge trade surplus in favour of China and the problem of Yuan’s value. Countries affected by such issues are certain to feel disappointed.

  1. Soft Power and Religion

Hu Jintao’s call, not seen in the earlier congresses, to ‘enhance culture as soft power’ of China apparently has the aim of culturally uniting the nation. The inclusion of the Party’s religious policies in the CCP Constitution is another ‘first’ in the history of party congresses. So far the Party traditionally maintained an atheistic stand and the step seems to echo the changed belief now that importance of religion for national unity (Buddhism-Tibet, Islam-Xinjiang) and for international contacts (reference China’s sponsorship of World Buddhist Conference some time ago) cannot be ignored.

  1. Defence Modernisation

The inclusion of Hu Jintao’s Scientific Outlook on Development as an important guiding principle for defence modernisation ‘in the new stage and new century’, along with the guidance of Mao, Deng and Jiang Zemin’s military writings, is a significant development in the Congress, not seen in earlier sessions. Hu’s stress that the Party should exercise absolute control over the army, needs to be seen against the backdrop of debate in the country over separation of Party and Government functions. Deng had himself supported such separation. ‘Active Defence’ and ‘New Security’ concepts do not find a place in Hu’s report in contrast to the inclusions of the same by Jiang Zemin in 2002.

  1. Taiwan

Hu Jintao’s formula providing for discussions on formally ending the state of hostility between the mainland and Taiwan, on the basis of ‘one-China’ principle and reaching a peace agreement, is a new initiative, not seen in earlier congresses. However, Beijing has made such offer before, for e.g. during Hu Jintao’s meetings with the KMT leader Lien Chan (2005) and the People First Party Chairman James Soong (2007). Hu’s non-use of the term ‘use of force’ in his report on the question of reunification, stands in contrast to Jiang Zemin’s justification in the 2002 Congress of the use of force to foil ‘attempts by foreign forces to interfere in China’s reunification and thwart schemes of Taiwan separatist forces for independence’. Hu’s apparent soft stand is being widely seen as tactical, keeping in view the forthcoming Olympics and the need to maintain the peace-loving image of China. What is notable at the same time is that ‘Use of force’ still continues to be an option for Beijing and its Anti-Secession Law stipulating the same remains operational. While the US has welcomed Hu’s offer, Taiwanese President Chen Shuibian has seen in the same Taiwan’s ‘surrender’. Had Hu not put the ‘one China’ precondition for peace agreement, his initiative might have had positive repercussions in Taiwan.

  1. Foreign policy

The Party General Secretary’s report to the Congress did not deviate from what Jiang Zemin observed in the previous Congress in 2002. “ Independent Foreign Policy of Peace” was stressed as usual. Certain omissions in Hu’s address however deserve attention. Jiang Zemin had pointed to religious conflicts and border disputes among others affecting foreign policy work, whereas Hu made no such references. His reiteration of China’s stand that nations should ‘seek common grounds while shelving differences’, deserves scrutiny, particularly in countries like India which have unsolved territorial disputes with China. This would effectively mean postponement of the finding solutions to the disputes with chances of they flaring up later. Also of interest has been Hu’s attempt to put China’s relations with advanced countries and neighbouring nations in two different compartments. In the case of former, the leader has desired a dialogue to ‘properly manage’ differences and regarding latter, he has laid down the policy of ‘friendship and partnership’.

Concluding remarks

Overall, the Congress has been an occasion marking continuity and change. The scenario leading up to the next session scheduled in 2012, needs to be watched with interest, centering round the questions of how the collective leadership is going to work in China and whether or not the new line-up will be able to effectively tackle the political and economic challenges facing the country. In this regard, Hu Jintao’s remarks that it would take several generations more to accomplish the objectives, have given a clear picture.

(The writer, Mr.D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai,India.

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