Sunday's full transition of power to Chinese President Hu Jintao -- who finally replaced Jiang Zemin as head of the military -- was eagerly anticipated in the West. For over 20 years, Mr. Hu has enjoyed a widespread reputation as a moderate reformist. But to get his latest promotion, Mr. Hu struck a devil's bargain with Mr. Jiang that will dim the prospects for political reform.
For 78-year-old Mr. Jiang, the new arrangement is a sweet one. In his new position as retired senior statesman, he is now formally ensconced, incongruous as it may seem, in the Communist Party pantheon as the co-equal of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
And Mr. Jiang's "profound contribution" to socialist theory, the so-called 'Important Thought of the 'Three Represents'" -- Mr. Jiang's doctrine that says the party must represent entrepreneurs, scientists and cultural figures, not just the proletariat and peasants -- is enshrined as a canonical text. It is now up there with "Marxism-Leninism," "Mao Zedong Thought," and "Deng Xiaoping Theory."
In return, Mr. Hu gets to take over Mr. Jiang's powerful military position. But it is unlikely that this promotion will have much of a policy impact. Mr. Hu's Faustian bargain with Mr. Jiang means that he has accepted the program set by his predecessor and by Mr. Jiang's right-hand man, Vice President Zeng Qinghong.
Mr. Zeng's failure to be appointed to the Chinese Military Commission in this latest reshuffle has been welcome as a reason to hope for a more moderate foreign policy. As recently as last month, Mr. Zeng was consolidating his position at the center of Mr. Jiang's "Shanghai faction," whose members were known by their bellicose rhetoric toward Taiwan, not to mention opposition to both democracy in Hong Kong as well as to America's global pre-eminence.
But the significance of Mr. Zeng's absence from the CMC may be overstated. Mr. Jiang didn't push for the elevation of his right-hand man to vice chairman of the CMC because the promotion of the unpopular Mr. Zeng would likely have sparked resistance by members of the Communist Party's Central Committee. Instead, Mr. Jiang did the next best thing: He packed the CMC with four additional generals -- all loyal to him and Mr. Zeng -- and promoted another confidant of the shadowy vice president's into a CMC vice-chair.
This new arrangement will be a mirror image of Mr. Hu's weak positions in the Politburo and the State Council. As much as half the Politburo owes its fealty to the Shanghai faction -- not to Mr. Hu -- as do most of the State Councilors and ministers.
In the two years since Mr. Hu's appointment as Communist Party chief he has seen his moderate policies often undercut by allies of Mr. Zeng, and this is likely to continue under the new arrangement. This means that there will be no political or foreign-policy reform, slowing of the military buildup, moderation on Hong Kong or easing in the Taiwan rhetoric.
Examples of how Mr. Hu was thwarted abound. At the height of the democratization debate in Hong Kong last year, a local Hong Kong politician remarked that Mr. Hu's people said Beijing had no opinion on the substance or timing of a set of draconian national security laws that the Jiang-picked leader of Hong Kong was trying to pass, according to the New York Times. But Mr. Zeng's propaganda department demanded that the bills be passed on time, and as written, the Washington Post later reported.
Last year, Mr. Hu encouraged an emissary of the Dalai Lama to visit Beijing, and members of the Tibetan exile community were cautiously optimistic that under Mr. Hu China's hard line was softening up a bit. But again the president was immediately undercut by Mr. Zeng's allies in the foreign ministry, who pressured Nepal to deport 18 young Tibetan dissidents to China for criminal prosecution.
And when Mr. Hu's policy advisers crafted a new doctrine of China's "peaceful rise," Mr. Zeng's minions listed "two arguments against the idea: one is the Taiwan question, and the other is relations with the United States," according to an article in the Central Party School newspaper "Study Times." In the end, Jiang Zemin decreed that the "peaceful rise" concept was weak and should be replaced by something less wimpish.
On the other hand, when Mr. Hu was allowed to rule without Shanghainese supervision, he was finally able to exert some influence. When Mr. Jiang, Mr. Zeng and others of the Shanghai faction evacuated Beijing and left Mr. Hu in charge during the SARS epidemic in 2003, Mr. Hu allowed the media to report on the issue more freely, and even encouraged praise of Jiang Yanyong, the retired Chinese army surgeon who blew the whistle on the cover-up of hundreds of secret SARS cases in military hospitals.
And relaxation of press restraints was not confined to SARS. In May, Mr. Hu ordered the publication of news about a disaster on a naval submarine that killed over 70 sailors. Many questioned whether Mr. Hu wanted to discredit the military's top leaders.
But now it appears that Mr. Hu's push for political reform has morphed into strengthening the Party's governance capacity. Indeed, his recent speeches and statements avoid taking a stand on anything even slightly heterodox.
When Mr. Hu was named party boss in November 2002, he pledged he would seek instruction and listen to the views of Mr. Jiang "on important matters." No doubt this pledge was reconfirmed last week. Unless domestic unrest boils over into widespread protests, or China's increasingly assertive foreign policy generates a significant backlash from either its Asian neighbors or the U.S., Mr. Hu can exert no pressure for political reform. The terms of Sunday's Faustian bargain will mean that "the era of Hu Jintao" can't yet begin.
Mr. Tkacik, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., is a retired officer in the U.S. foreign service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.
First appeared in The Wall Street Journal