The Sixteenth Party Congress and China's Succession

Report Asia

The Sixteenth Party Congress and China's Succession

October 3, 2002 21 min read

Authors: Carol Hamrin and Joseph Fewsmith

Adapted from presentations at a panel discussion on "Jiang Zemin at the Crawford Summit" held at The Heritage Foundation on October 3, 2002.

Does the Sixteenth Party Congress Matter?

By Joseph Fewsmith

It seems that there is greater interested focused on the forthcoming Sixteenth Party Congress than on previous Congresses. Perhaps it is the distortion of memory, but I do not recall the press and general public being as interested in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, or Fifteenth Party Congresses (in 1987, 1992, and 1997) as they are in this one. If there is a basis for this perception of mine, I think the explanation lies in the following factors:

(1) The anticipated transfer of power from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao. This is not only passing power to a new generation but the first time in PRC history that such a peaceful transition has occurred (assuming it occurs). This would seem to indicate a new level of maturity and institutionalization in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The fascination is enhanced by the speculation over Hu Jintao. Though we know a good bit about his biography, we can only speculate about his thinking. How, if he had a free hand, would he change policy?

(2) Intrigue always enhances the news value of a story, and there certainly have been many reports of intrigue this summer. Although Andrew Nathan and Bruce Gilley have argued, on the basis of confidential Organization Department files, that there is in fact no intrigue, that everything is proceeding according to a plan worked out months ago, there have been many rumors, some seemingly quite credible, that Jiang Zemin has been reluctant to retire.[1] Speculation over Jiang's intentions have kept newspaper writers busy.

(3) Finally, there is a Sino-U.S. relations aspect to this story. Although there has been a visible relaxation of Sino-U.S. relations since the spring of 2001 when the EP-3 was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island, tension never seems far from the surface. To what extent will China support the U.S. in the war against terrorism? Will China support a U.N. resolution to strike Iraq? Will China threaten Taiwan with military action? Will China comply with its obligations under the WTO? What will the new leadership mean for Sino-U.S. relations?

All of these are important questions. The first relates to the institutionalization of the Chinese political system. As Lyman Miller has recently argued, Hu has been cultivated as the political successor for a number of years; any upset to that apparent progression to the leadership spot is bound to roil the Chinese political system and raise serious questions in the United States about the maturity of the Chinese political system.[2] The second question relates to the transparency of the Chinese political system. The fact of the matter is that the "rules of the game" are not very clear, certainly not to outsiders and perhaps not to insiders. Indeed, one of the outcomes of the Congress may be either to clarify the rules of the games or to muddy the water for years to come. And the third question relates to that question that pervades in Washington: "So What?" What does it mean for the United States if one leader or another heads China?

The answers to these questions will not be known until at least mid-November (after the end of the Party Congress) and perhaps not for some time after that (after the dust has settled). I would like to take a tentative run at answering at least some of these questions and then argue that the Congress is likely to mean both more and less than meets the eye.

Viewed from the perspective of the conduct of elite politics, the most important outcome of the Party Congress will be to either clarify or further cloud the rules of the game. This issue is raised precisely because China now has a post-revolutionary leadership. It no longer has a Mao Zedong or a Deng Xiaoping who can stand above the political system and make authoritative decisions. Deng argued that he was the "core" of the second generation of leadership, but, in fact, he was the second core of the first generation of leadership. Like Mao, Deng was a Long March veteran and a leader of the revolution. Deng Xiaoping could "retire" and still expect to control the political situation (in fact, the Thirteenth Party Congress authorized this by passing a resolution saying that important political questions would be referred to Deng as the "helmsman"). After Deng gave up his position as head of the Central Military Commission in 1989, his most senior title was honorary head of the Chinese Bridge Association. Yet he could still intervene in politics, as his dramatic trip to Shenzhen in early 1992 showed.

Jiang Zemin cannot do this. His informal authority is not sufficient to allow him to "attend to court government from behind the curtain." This is in part because his colleagues do not regard him with the same respect that was given to Deng, but it is even more the result of generational change. The non-revolutionary generation of leaders will never be able to hold the sort of charismatic authority that the revolutionary leaders possessed, so they inevitably have to turn to other models of authority. Building up factional strength and increasing the importance of formal institutions are two (contradictory) ways of doing so. Jiang has done both.

It is precisely because of Jiang's limited informal authority that many people expect his influence to diminish rapidly after the Sixteenth Party Congress. At the risk of being proven wrong in a matter of weeks, I will venture to say that I do not think so. I anticipate a more gradual transition, with Jiang retaining significant authority, either through formal or informal means, for a significant period of time. If this is the case, it will be too bad precisely because it will diminish the clarity of the rules of the game at a time when China should be strengthening them. Many Chinese may look longingly at the experience of the PRI in Mexico, where a party leader served a single six-year term and then left office in charge of his successor. There was a clarity there that prevented the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual for more than the length of his presidential term and, in turn, limited factional struggle.

There will be two costs to the Chinese political system if it chooses to go this way. First, the political process is likely to be murky (even murkier than usual) during a period of transition because the lines of authority will not be clear and different factional interests will vie for influence. Some may even try to derail Hu Jintao's hold on the office of general secretary. Second, the result of such a messy process would be tentative policy making. But China has some very serious issues to tackle, starting with corruption and income inequality, both intraregional and interregional. A new leadership that articulated policy clearly and persuasively would be a welcome change, but I am doubtful that we will see it.[3]

Although I am concerned about the inability of the Chinese political system to clarify such important matters as leadership succession (the bugaboo of Leninist and authoritarian systems everywhere), I do think the Sixteenth Party Congress will generate changes that will accelerate a process of political change that has been underway, albeit quietly for some time.

First, the Sixteenth Party Congress will certainly revise the Party charter to include the "Three Represents," Jiang's effort to revive the Party by saying that it represents the advanced productive forces, advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the broad mass of the people. The political report, and possibly the Party charter, will endorse the admission of private entrepreneurs and other "outstanding elements" from emerging strata of society into the Party. After a burst of news coverage following Jiang Zemin's July 1, 2001, speech, the news stories regarding this have diminished. But this remains important and controversial in China. It appears that shortly after Jiang's speech, the Central Organization Department sent a directive telling lower level units not to proceed with admitting private entrepreneurs until it had worked out regulations governing their admission. As far as can be determined, such regulations have not yet been issued, but experiments have been proceeding in some parts of the country. One can expect that regulations will finally be issued after the issue is endorsed by the Party Congress.

Second, closely related to this issue, the Party Congress can be expected to make a fuller statement about the Party's understanding of the "law of value." This will seem an obscure ideological issue to "inside the Beltway" types, but since the notion of "exploitation" lies at the very heart of so-called scientific socialism, and hence the legitimacy of the CCP, it is a big deal inside the Second Ring Road in Beijing. Reinterpreting the law of value in such a way that much of what managers and entrepreneurs do are seen as "productive labor" will go a long way to ending Marxist notions of "class struggle" and moving the CCP toward a "Party of the whole people" (one that is not based on class). The CCP won't go the whole way this time, but it can be expected to move forward on this issue.

Third, the Sixteenth Party Congress appears poised to endorse a package of reforms to enhance "innerparty democracy." Recently the South China Morning Post reported that the Congress would require that all nominations for provincial Party committee members be endorsed by the provincial Party Congress, that all nominations be made public two months in advance for a period of public comment, and that provincial Party Congresses be held annually.[4] These reforms are consistent with many of the experiments that have been tried out in the provinces in recent years and thus seem believable.[5]

These issues add up to more than meets the eye because they will endorse a process of political reform that will inevitably invite pressures to do more. No doubt Richard Baum is correct in saying that innerparty democracy is a way to avoid the real thing, but I think that once the issue of political reform is engaged, as it appears it will be, it will take on a logic of its own.[6] Our attention is currently focused on the Sixteenth Party Congress, but Congresses, because they promote a new cast of political leaders and endorse new reform measures, inevitably stimulate pressures that bubble up in between congresses. Thus the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee, in 1978, was the one that inaugurated the Dengist era. The Third Plenary Session of the 13th Central Committee, in 1984, endorsed a far-reaching economic reform program. Unfortunately, two years after the Thirteenth Party Congress in 1987, we saw tensions released in the student movement and subsequent repression in 1989. The Third Plenary Session of the Fifteenth Central Committee, in 1998, endorsed calls for economic readjustment and adoption of a share-holding system. So while we look closely at the Sixteenth Party Congress, we should also be thinking about the pressures that it will unleash for the future.

These are important issues, but so too are the ways in which the Party Congress is likely to be less than meets the eye. Despite all the excited tone of news accounts, much of what the Congress will do is fairly well known. There are always surprises at Party Congresses, and no doubt we will be discussing them at post-Congress seminars, but the outlines of the Political Report were given by Jiang Zemin in his May 31 speech to the Central Party School, and I have just outlined areas that seem to be indicated by PRC media coverage. In addition, over the past year, all provincial Party Congresses have met and decided on their provincial leadership. It can be assumed that those newcomers to provincial Party office will join the Central Committee. The same is true with changes in the State Council and military. So much of the composition of the new Central Committee is know. These are younger and generally better educated people (often in their mid fifties). They appear to be less encumbered by ideological concerns than their predecessors. Whether they will also prove to be less corrupt is an important question.

More important, although we can expect a gradual adjustment of Party policies, there seems to be no reason to expect dramatic changes in policy. In general this is good. The Chinese government has been stepping up poverty relief and efforts to provide unemployment compensation for unemployed workers. The government's plan to invest heavily in the interior is an effort to address the regional disparities that have grown up over the past decade and more. The past year has seen efforts to loosen the household registration system so as to encourage more people to move into cities (but not into large coastal cities such as Beijing and Shanghai). Perhaps the most important area in which Party policy could change would be in giving more loans to the private economy. The private economy has been growing rapidly in recent years and now employs about 100 million workers. This is the only sector that is growing significantly in terms of employment, and the government certainly faces a choice of whether to support this growth or not. It seems impossible for China to continue to close state-owned enterprises without providing alternative avenues of employment - and those will inevitably be in the private sector.


The Sixteenth Party Congress will be important because it will raise to a new level issues of leadership succession, the rules of the game, and the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. It will no doubt provide surprises, and it will finally answer that mysterious question, Will Jiang retire or not? But it will be less than meets the eye because we do not expect leadership change to lead to dramatic policy change. There will be more continuity than change. But it may also be more than meets the eye because it will lay the seeds for issues, such as political reform that are likely to be met sometime further down the road.

-Joseph Fewsmith is a professor of international relations and political science at Boston University, where he directs the East Asia Interdisciplinary Studies program.

China's Political Succession

By Carol Lee Hamrin

The upcoming transition in China following the Sixteenth Party Congress is important, but not as important as in the past. Policies will not change radically in the near term. There is more conformity and consensus among the leadership than in the past, and the debate is on how, not whether, to develop the market economy. Due to global trends, all agree that the U.S. will remain the sole superpower for the indefinite future and that good relations with the U.S. are essential. Domestically, China's central authorities no longer dominate all decision-making, but must share authority with lower levels of officials and with new economic and social actors. As pragmatic conservatives, the leaders do as little as possible and only as much as necessary. There are so many new forces at play within the country that the leadership has trouble knowing what is really going on. Recently published internal documents from the personnel department indicate that behind closed doors, top leaders are worried about such issues as corruption, social injustice, Party illegitimacy, and the role of the U.S. in containing China. They hope the Party Congress will provide a show of strength and unity and that they will have some real successes to celebrate. However, when it comes to concrete policy-making, the lack of good information from subordinates, combined with group-think, has rendered them ill-equipped to deal creatively with emerging issues.

Jiang's Legacy

Deng Xiaoping and other elders chose Jiang Zemin as a compromise candidate to revive and carry on the reform program in the messy aftermath of the crisis of June 4, 1989. Jiang has pursued Deng's choice of the East Asian model of state capitalism under authoritarian rule and has struggled to balance his role as "caretaker" of Deng's policies with his role of "modernizer" of Party rule. His strength has been his managerial style-his ability to find the political middle ground and create consensus in the top leadership, balancing various personal and policy factions so as to avoid serious splits that make the regime vulnerable. The need to maintain investor confidence has been paramount.

One of Jiang's weaknesses is the natural conservatism and risk avoidance that comes with this style. Unlike Deng, who tended to cut to the heart of a matter and change policy direction when needed, Jiang has hesitated to take strong action to address policy problems and prefers marginal adjustments. Examples of this include the stalemate in Taiwan policy and the missed opportunity in 1998 for Jiang to launch a gradual political reform program. Another weakness is Jiang's narcissism. Decision-making often is skewed toward what is good for Jiang's personal reputation and influence. An example of this is the ban on the Falun Gong, which has backfired but cannot be changed because it is known to be Jiang's personal decision. As Jiang gained power and established his preeminence in decision-making, his "moderate" views became increasingly conservative. His emphasis on stability, especially during the transition of leadership, has actually become destabilizing, as political capacity lags further and further behind the problems that require urgent remedy. Jiang and his peers, as Soviet-trained engineers, have outlived their time of maximum contribution to China's development, and they need fresh energy and ideas.

The CCP Scorecard

City residents (whose opinions count more and more) probably would give the triumvirate of Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, and Li Peng a "B" on socio-economics (while farmers would give them a "D" at best). Perhaps the three would garner a "C-" on politics and culture and an "A-" on foreign policy. Nevertheless, there is a sense of current stasis and future danger that is fueling a growing impatience for Jiang and his peers to retire so that younger leaders can get China on the move again. They realize that what worked for the 1990s will not work in the years ahead.

Socioeconomic Development
China's single-minded focus on maintaining its economic growth rate (7% or higher) has been successful, although growth has been fueled lately through deficit financing for infrastructure projects. But the development of the market economy has spurred other problems of geographic and social inequities. In 1999 the leadership became worried about an economic slowdown, about rising social disturbances and a resurgence of intellectual interest in Western liberalism, and there has been a major internal research effort to understand China's social problems. Policy advisors have pointed out that rapid growth without equal opportunity for gain exacerbates grievances. These grievances now include not only popular grievances against the elites but also fierce competition for resources within the bureaucratic and business elites, including Western and central grievances against Beijing and the coast.

Political Development
The Party has been successful in its effort to co-opt the business elite and gain the cooperation of the professional elites. But the price has been massive and system-wide corruption. Moralistic anti-corruption campaigns and token legal action have been insufficient to remedy the problem, no doubt because these actions would hurt the very business interests that the Party is wooing. There is evidence that younger members of the leadership and their advisors worry that the political structure needs major reforms, including democratic elections for broader political participation, to avoid a populist uprising. Meanwhile, villagers in the countryside have received a taste of choice and control and have developed a rights consciousness through their practical experience with village elections. Surprisingly, urban citizens seem not to have given this great attention or wider application thus far. Yet the official call for building the rule of law and the on-going development of commercial law have fueled widespread expectation for civil rights following international norms.

Social and Cultural Progress
The growth of personal freedoms and the development of cultural pluralism have been widely welcomed. But this has been overshadowed lately by dismay at the rampant growth of personal and public immorality. Sham or shoddy consumer products, required bribery for any scarce social service, rising crime, delinquency and divorce rates, and organized crime are everywhere. Policy researchers have identified this lack of "social capital" and the weakness of autonomous civil organizations as obstacles to sustainable development. The relatively ineffective Party response has been to revive a single monolithic set of values-patriotism and Confucian-style discipline-along with government controls over social organizations. However, the old-style ideology campaign to promote loyalty to Jiang Zemin's writings has been counter-productive, fueling cynicism about politics.

While the majority of Han Chinese can live with vague state-defined norms of "Chinese-style socialism" and state-controlled mass organizations, especially given their growing ability to negotiate with the local officials over terms of compliance, this is not the case for significant minority groups and interests. Political and labor dissidents, religious dissenters, and promoters of ethnic nationalism-all under growing pressure to change their values and lifestyles-are beginning to assert their rights. These countervailing trends lead to growing incidents of rights abuse.

Nationalism and Unification
Jiang Zemin and the CCP gain credit from the symbolism and relatively smooth return of Hong Kong and Macao to PRC control. But policies have been stuck within the narrow parameters of Deng Xiaoping's twenty-year old "one nation, two systems" thinking. Regarding Taiwan, China has been "watching and waiting" to see how President Chen Shui-bian deals with the cross-Strait relationship, while trying to build up a credible military deterrent to Taiwan independence. There is no proactive approach underway beyond merely hoping that economic integration will work political miracles. As a result, it will take growing friction between PRC state nationalism centered on the imperatives of economic modernization and the changing identities in Taiwan as well as the democratic aspirations in Hong Kong to elicit political change. The Taiwanese are used to choosing their own political leaders and are going to insist on making decisions about their future relationship with the Mainland. Politicians who have to face re-election will give priority to domestic constituencies over Mainland opinion. While citizens of Hong Kong and Taiwan share a cultural history and an affinity and a desire to contribute to the progress of their ancestral land, this does not translate into loyalty to the PRC above loyalties closer to home or a willingness to drop all non-economic agendas upon crossing the border. In fact, globalization sets the trend in the opposite direction.

There will need to be a major readjustment of ethnic and religious policies on the Mainland as well, as the Chinese are learning to selectively choose parts of the state's nationalistic agenda that fit with other of their cosmopolitan preferences. As cross-border information and exchanges of all sorts expand, mainland Chinese have adopted new multiple layers of overlapping identities and loyalties, such as affinity with the transnational Chinese Christian community, the urban middle-class global professional communities, or the revitalized sects of Taiwan-based Buddhism. There are also newly strengthened ethnic identities in Western China due to cross-border interchange with the Central Asian Muslim states, democratic Mongolia, and the respected and influential transnational Tibetan community.

Great Power Diplomacy and Regional Dynamics
Jiang has moved China far along the road from international class struggle to pragmatic moderation. He has given China's new urban middle class greater pride in PRC accomplishments, and events like APEC and the Crawford summit give the perception that the regional and global communities treat China with respect. Similar symbolic events, including Shanghai's hosting of the 2001 APEC meetings and Beijing's successful bid to host the 2008 Olympics, have been to Jiang's credit and have maintained investor confidence. The greatest international gain for China from September 11 has been the turn of U.S. attention to the immediate enemy of terrorism in West Asia and the Middle East, rather than the hypothetical threat posed by Chinese power. The biggest downside for China and Asia has been the uncertainty about the U.S. and the global economy. The Chinese know that a major economic downturn is their gravest threat to national security. But foreign affairs specialists are basically optimistic that areas of practical bilateral cooperation, i.e., security, economics, and global issues, will have sufficient import to outweigh the tensions in the U.S.-China relationship. The task, which is more tactical than strategic, is to balance cooperation with the U.S. while maintaining a role for the United Nations Security Council, which is China's main source of influence in global decision-making. As the U.S. consults with Europe and Russia on its priority issues, the Chinese worry about a lack of leverage despite their considerable equities, including oil, in South and Central Asia.

Beijing will be thinking of precedents for future decisions closer to home. In particular, they are worried about Korea. Will the U.S. keep working with South Korea and Japan to bring North Korea out of the Stone Age? The Chinese are uncertain about the U.S. bottom line. The other potential flash point with the U.S. is over national missile defense (NMD) or theater missile defense (TMD). The first can render China's nuclear deterrent meaningless, and theater defenses could include Japan and cover Taiwan's defense, which the Chinese would perceive as very threatening to their interests.

There is ambivalence about the U.S. activism and growing presence all around China-in Central Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Traditional thinkers, still the majority, view this as deliberate containment. But some analysts and officials have argued that U.S. leadership actually serves China's interests. In the India-Pakistan situation, for example, the U.S. did what China could not do and served as a stabilizing force. The U.S. designation of the ETIM (Uighur) group as terrorists no doubt strengthened this perception of a commonality of interests. The U.S. is justifiably worried that Beijing will misuse this cooperation in order to label all Uighur nationalists as terrorists. But the fact of having cooperated with one group could be used by the U.S. as leverage to insure greater attention by Chinese in how they distinguish and deal with the different groups.

An Upswing in U.S.-China Relations

Because of September 11 and the campaign against terrorism, the voices on both sides of the U.S.-China dialogue that previously emphasized the threat coming from the other side have now subsided. The U.S. was reminded that we have other, more immediate enemies. The Chinese became very nervous about the drastic, unexpected changes in international dynamics, and they feel that they have very little, if any, control over how things work out. The key to understanding the relationship is to recognize that Chinese foreign policy is essentially reactive. Events like this force China into a catch-up mode. In recent months they have chosen the route of more active cooperation with the U.S. as the best way to maintain their equities and avoid blame for problems.

China is also being very careful right now because of the upcoming Crawford summit. The Chinese leadership is ambivalent about the Bush Administration. They like the personal relationship between Jiang and Bush, but they are leery of the pro-Taiwan sentiment in the Administration. When they see Taiwan's defense minister visiting the Pentagon and the growing arms sales to Taiwan, they are convinced that Taiwan's leaders and populace will interpret this as unconditional U.S. support for Taiwan in any conflict with the PRC. Thus, at the Crawford meeting, Jiang will stress support for the U.S. and common security and economic interests, while also reminding the U.S. of the need for great caution on the Taiwan issue.

A Window of Opportunity for Greater Religious Freedom

For months, Chinese diplomats and researchers have been exploring ways to improve U.S. perceptions of religious and other human rights in China before the Crawford summit. Knowing that the President will likely again raise religious issues and that he has promoted the concept of dialogue with both the Vatican and the Dalai Lama, Jiang has initiated efforts on this front, extending an invitation to China for representatives of the Dalai Lama and affecting releases of Tibetan prisoners. The U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom was also welcomed in China to discuss religious rights issues. It is questionable whether this activism will go beyond appearances, given the general desire to postpone controversial policy decisions during the leadership transition.

However, the closer China gets to the 2008 Olympics the more likely that the leadership will rethink their position on religion. Already, Beijing City is publicizing preparations, including language training, for religious organizations to host Olympian athletes and spectators. They have sent a delegation to the U.S. to learn how Atlanta and Los Angeles have handled such events. There also is a sub-surface consensus that the crusade against the Falun Gong and other "cults" has boomeranged, and younger officials have argued for a major relaxation of tensions with religious groups. Yet there is a long way to go from the current obsessive preoccupation with religion as a negative problem in society to a more relaxed or even welcoming attitude toward the positive role religion can play in the modernization effort. It is important for the U.S. to think creatively about how to help shift this focus.

Cautious New Leaders

Initially after the transition, we will see more of the same. China will remain inward-looking, reacting to events rather than actively trying to shape them. This will be particularly true in foreign affairs, given the relative lack of experience among the new leadership. However, these leaders, if not world statesmen, are all capable politicians with strong functional skills. They have experience in China's poor frontier regions and are flexible and pragmatic in seeking solutions to problems. As these new leaders become more comfortable with their responsibilities, they will move beyond implementing previous policy and will become more engaged in policy adjustments. At that point, new thinking from younger generations and outside actors can feed into the decision-making process.

-Carol Lee Hamrin is a Chinese affairs consultant and an Affiliate Professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where she works with the Center for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation and the I [1] Andrew Nathan and Bruce Gilley, "China's New Rulers: 1. The Path to Power," in The New York Review of Books, September 26, 2002, pp. 12-16; and idem., "China's New Rulers: What They Want," in The New York Review of Books, October 10, 2002, pp. 28-32.


[2] H. Lyman Miller, "The 16th Party Congress and China's Political Processes," in Gang Lin and Susan Shirk, eds., "The !6th CCP Congress and Leadership Transition in China," The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Asia Program Special Report No. 105 (September 2002), pp. 10-14.

[3] I have explored some of these issues in my article, "Generational Transition in China," in The Washington Quarterly, Autumn 2002.

[4] Fong Tak-ho, "Poll Reforms to Boost Cadres' Accountability," South China Morning Post, September 30, 2002.

[5] Joseph Fewsmith, "Social Issues Move to Center Stage," in Chinese Leadership Monitor, vol. 1, no. 3 (forthcoming).

[6] Richard Baum's opinion is cited in the South China Morning Post article.


Carol Hamrin

Joseph Fewsmith

Distinguished Fellow in China Policy