Path Set at Party Congress

From September 12 to 19, 1997, President Jiang Zemin convened the Chinese Communist Party’s Fifteenth National Party Congress. Held every five years, the Party Congress is a chance for leadership initiatives, personnel changes, and the adoption of government policies. Although debate of most issues took place at the Communist Party’s seaside retreat in Beidaihe in August, the decisions are ratified by the week-long Party Congress. This year’s Congress was marked by economic reform and leadership changes, delineating President Jiang’s path for socialism with Chinese characteristics” into the twenty-first century.

The most significant shifts in leadership were the retirement of Qiao Shi from the Central Committee and the end of Li Peng’s term as Premier. Qiao Shi, former chief of China’s intelligence and security apparatus, had used his post as head of the National People’s Congress to push for a greater rule of law in Chinese government and society. Some analysts contend that Qiao, while not challenging Jiang’s leadership, may have privately challenged his vision for China’s political development, perhaps even supporting an informal reassessment of the Tiananmen verdict. Jiang demonstrated the degree of his control over the party by convincing seventy-two-year-old Qiao Shi (one year older than Jiang Zemin) to retire, not only from the seven-person Standing Committee that administers China’s daily affairs, but from the twenty-two-person Central Committee as well. Qiao may have been hurt by the passing away of his mentors, Peng Zhen and Chen Yun, who were behind only Deng Xiaoping in revolutionary credentials and who passed away in 1997 and 1995, respectively.

As for Li Peng, Jiang may offer him Qiao Shi’s former position as head of the National People’s Congress. He was offered the prestigious, if less active, post of heading the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection, but did not take it. Although perceived by some as a place to put old revolutionaries out to pasture, the Commission received expanded powers from the Party Congress in order to step up the anticorruption campaigns. Also, Li will retain his position as number two in the Party, behind President Jiang, and ahead of the new number three, Zhu Rongji. After Jiang finds a new place for Li, the post of Premier will be open for Zhu Rongji, current Vice-Premier and former head of the Bank of China. Widely perceived as the technocratic economics czar of China’s reform and opening by the West, Zhu has the confidence of foreign lending institutions and investors, and the no-nonsense business approach necessary to implement state-owned enterprise reform.

The three most important themes of this Congress were generation change, anticorruption, and state- owned enterprise (SOE) reform. The first two points are targeted at improving the image of a government that is widely criticized in the West as a "gerontocracy," and widely perceived by common Chinese people as increasingly corrupt.

In a well publicized decision a week before the Congress opened, Chen Xitong, the former head of the Communist Party of Beijing, was handed over for criminal prosecution on charges of corruption.

The new emphasis on the promotion of younger and more qualified cadres has three implications. First, it is an attempt to establish an institutional leadership succession process, an urgent concern in the immediate post-Deng era. Second, it is a way to reduce the influence of older conservatives within the Party who may oppose Jiang’s moderate policies. And third, it may be a consolidation of Jiang’s leadership against any possible challenge.

Finally, SOE reform is the largest obstacle to the reform and opening program and will define Jiang’s future economic plans. Because more than half of China’s industrial production and nearly all of China’s urban workers still rely on SOEs, reform is a daunting task.

Moreover, the Party Congress laid down the theoretical basis of Chinese leadership. Jiang emphasized Deng’s line of--socialism with Chinese characteristics, continuing to walk the middle path between Party hard-liners and moderates. New constitutional amendments that enshrine Deng’s thought and set age limits for Politburo members (seventy) were also adopted.

In the past, Party Congresses have been used as platforms for the reevaluation of policies, such as after the Great Leap Forward in 1959 and at the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s program of “reform and opening” in 1978. This time, however, it appears that the Party Congress was used mainly as a platform for domestic integration and consolidation by Jiang and his supporters—raising the specter of federal concentration of power at the center and finally putting to rest the fears of China-watchers who predicted instability after the death of Deng.

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