China undergoes biggest leadership overhaul in a decade

By Michael Dorgan Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) BEIJING _ The most sweeping political changes in China in more than a decade will get under way this week as the nation’s legislature convenes to approve new top officials. The new generation is expected to gradually introduce modest political reforms while guarding the Communist Party’s dominant role. Few surprises are expected from the two-week-long 10th National People’s Congress, which convenes Wednesday. The Congress deputies will approve top officials _ including a new president and premier _ that the Communist Party already has selected. They also will sign off on an ambitious restructuring of the central government. It’s likely to remain highly unclear who really wields power in China and how much actually will change. “We will see a lot of old faces with new positions,” said Wu Guoguang, a former government adviser who’s now at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “But there may be some new faces, too.” The familiar face destined to take the government’s top job is Vice President Hu Jintao. The 60-year-old career politician will replace Jiang Zemin as president after succeeding him last November as general secretary of the Communist Party, China’s most powerful position. Those twin crowns will make Hu the so-called core of the fourth generation of postrevolutionary leaders. Hu is a familiar face on the news, but has spoken so seldom in public that he is a mystery even to the Chinese. The 76-year-old Jiang, who has held power since 1989, is expected to retain China’s third crown, the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission. That will leave him as commander-in-chief of the military forces, which will provide him with considerable clout. He also is expected to exert influence behind the scenes through the numerous supporters he installed in key party positions before retiring as general secretary. Hu has given few clues about what changes he would like to make, if any. But with Jiang on watch against any abrupt shifts in direction, the new generation of leaders is expected to stay the course, deepening the economic reforms of the past 20 years and speeding China’s integration with the global economy. Assisting Hu in that effort will be Vice Premier Wen Jiabao, who is expected to succeed Zhu Rongji as premier, and Wu Bangguo, who is expected to replace Li Peng as head of the parliament. “The party has no intention of giving up its monopoly on political power,” said Joseph Cheng, chairman of the political science department at the City University of Hong Kong. “It is eager to improve its legitimacy without threatening its power.” Cheng said the government overhaul that the National People’s Congress would approve was aimed at making state agencies and institutions more efficient and responsive, and at combating corruption. It will include consolidating some government agencies and downsizing and streamlining others. Seen by some as a continuation of institutional reforms that Premier Zhu began in 1998, the changes have some very specific goals, according to a party member who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. One is to restructure the banking system, which is teetering under as much as $500 billion in nonperforming loans. The bad loans are largely the result of lending money to state-owned institutions on the basis of government policy objectives rather than on their ability to repay the money. State-owned enterprises still account for at least 70 percent of the bank loans in China, even though two-thirds of the country’s economic growth now comes from the nonstate economy, according to a recent government report. The overall goal of the planned government reforms is to maintain rapid economic growth, said the party member, a senior fellow at an influential government-run research institute. He said there was broad agreement in the party that continued rapid economic growth was essential to China’s stability, and that growth could continue only if there was major governmental reform. Fears of instability have risen in recent years as China’s wealth gap has widened. Hundreds of millions of mostly urban Chinese have benefited greatly from economic reforms, but an even larger number of rural residents and laid-off urban workers have been left behind. China’s spectacular economic growth has been a high-wire act without a safety net, but pressure is building to develop a social welfare system. However, solutions won’t be easy to find without true political reforms that change not merely government institutions but also the distribution of political power, according to Professor Wu. Wu also said true political reform was the only solution for the rampant corruption that has generated widespread resentment of the government. Currently there is no meaningful separation of powers in China because all institutions _ including police and courts _ are subordinate to the Communist Party. But Hu seems determined to avoid reforms. During a recent visit to a revolutionary shrine, Hu called for a return to the communist values of hard work and humility. The Communist Party’s newspaper People’s Daily heralded Hu’s speech and exhorted party members to “take the initiative to oppose unhealthy ideas and complacency with the existing situation, oppose being impetuous and exaggerating, oppose a rush for quick success, oppose unhealthy ideas and an obsession with pleasure and luxury, and oppose extravagance and wasting money.” ___ ‘copy 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.