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China's Question: Who Will Follow Hu?

Chinese President Hu Jintao (center) makes his way to deliver his speech as Politburo member Wu Bangguo bows and former president Jiang Zemin looks on at the opening of the 17th Communist Party Congress in Beijing on Monday.
Goh Chai Hin
AFP/Getty Images
Chinese President Hu Jintao (center) makes his way to deliver his speech as Politburo member Wu Bangguo bows and former president Jiang Zemin looks on at the opening of the 17th Communist Party Congress in Beijing on Monday.

China's ruling Communist Party on Monday begins a national congress that is expected to give President Hu Jintao a final five-year term.

The question facing the congress is who will follow Hu? For the first time since the communists came to power, China's leader has no heir apparent.

Bao Tong, a former senior member of the party's central committee, has experience with and insight into China's politics of succession. Bao was jailed for eight years and remains under house arrest, but he has been able to receive some visitors this year.


He says Hu Jintao is in no position to dictate who will succeed him.

"I don't believe Hu will appoint anyone," Bao said. "But he will offer his opinion, and the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee will discuss it. Whoever they decide on will be it, with or without an election. Can this system be stable? I don't believe it can."

The Last of Deng Xiaoping's Selections

China's succession politics have been anything but stable. Three out of seven recent anointed heirs have been pulled or toppled. Hu and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, were both selected by Deng Xiaoping, the leader who followed Chairman Mao.

On Oct. 1, 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China from the rostrum overlooking Tiananmen Square. Like the founders of most of China's imperial dynasties, Mao was a charismatic strongman who defeated his rivals in a long and bloody civil war.


But three generations after Mao, Hu is like other end-of-dynasty rulers. He is not much more powerful than his peers. Bao said leaders like Hu do not make it to the top by being charismatic or thinking outside the box.

"Mao raised them all. He was original. Nobody after Deng Xiaoping was original. Everyone grew up eating out of the party's hand. Everyone grew up under the party's education, including myself. So my appraisal of these people — including myself — is not very high," he said.

Loyalists Call for Democracy Within the Party

Bao insisted that he does not want to see the party fall, because there are still good people in it. His prescription for the party's survival is simple: abandon its monopoly on power and hold genuine elections — at least within the party.

Unfortunately, Bao said he does not see much of a role for the ordinary Chinese in this process. He said democracy is most likely to come from the demands of the party's own wealthy and powerful.

"Do you think the party Central Committee and Politburo members want political decisions made in secret? I don't believe it," he said. "I was a central committee member myself. If I were to stand for election to the committee, I would not want my name to be the only one on the ballot."

The Central Committee will vote for Hu at the party congress, Bao said, because Hu's name will be the only one on the ballot. It will be "choice-free election," he said.

Some Chinese hope that Hu will institute democratic reforms once he consolidates his own power, but Bao doubts that that will happen.

"Some people think that the 17th party congress will herald new reforms. I can't see it. My eyes are wide open, but I just don't see it. All I can see is that they are making efforts to hang on to and consolidate their own power," he said.

He said the 17th party congress and the reshuffling of the party's leadership is just a fancy exercise in hanging on to power.

"They take the party bosses of the 30 provinces. They move this one here and that one there. This is the party leadership's most important tool of governance. Why transfer a provincial secretary? It's to remind him who gave him his power," he said.

In other words, it is to show him who is the boss. Bao said this reality rips the veil off of China's claim to be a republic, much less a "people's republic."

He said it is more like the system of appointed prefecture and county officials used by China's first emperor more than 2000 years ago.

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