May 21, 2004 – “China’s Leadership Transition” with Dr. Michael Lampton: Lecture II Policymakers Seminar Series
Dr. Lampton began his speech on the Chinese leadership transition by explaining Jiang Zemin’s partial transfer of power in 2002 and 2003, in which the fourth generation of Chinese leadership rose to prominence. Dr. Lampton described a meeting with Jiang Zemin in which he boasted of how efficient his succession had been in comparison to Mao and Deng. Still, it is important to note that Jiang retained leadership of the Central Military Commission, and many believed that would hold a great deal of government power until he retired or died.
However, Dr. Lampton explained how last year’s SARS crisis enabled new President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to attain real power much sooner than expected. While Jiang attempted to keep the growing SARS epidemic quiet, the fourth generation leaders made a point of communicating with the rest of the world, and holding government officials accountable for mistakes. In addition to consistently getting the 4th generations’ names and faces into domestic and world news, their choices gave them the opportunity to look effective.
What are the characteristics of the new leadership? Dr. Lampton explained that the fourth generation of Chinese leadership was about five to ten years old during the communist revolution. Many came to positions of power just in time to be attacked in the Cultural Revolution. Most are engineers who were educated in Britain or the United States. The fourth generation is too young to have the revolutionary credentials that legitimized previous leaders. Therefore, they are even more dependent on economic growth and prosperity for legitimacy.
Dr. Lampton expects these leaders to place more emphasis on economic equality and developing the country’s interior than Jiang Zemin. He also predicts some degree of political liberalization, but notes that political change will come slowly and with great difficulty. As for Taiwan, Dr. Lampton feels that the fourth generation will show a little more flexibility on the issue. These leaders do not want to deal with a military confrontation when there are already so many problems to work out on the mainland.
Finally, Dr. Lampton discussed whether or not the new leadership is united. He noted that Jiang Zemin was successful in installing some of his protégés into the new leadership. The divide between Jiang’s faction and Hu and Wen’s faction may create a more western style political system of opposition. However, the lack of unity may create a host of other problems at the Chinese government attempts to evolve.