China’s smooth leadership transition from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao provides an opportunity to examine the institutional foundations of the country’s political and economic power. How is this current transition different from previous ones? What are the linkages between ideology and institutions? How have shifts in the concept and meaning of property rights influenced China’s development? How does one best understand the nature of contemporary Chinese society? In what manner will the politics of elite succession color Chinese decision making in the foreign policy and national security arenas? On November 13, the Asia Program hosted a book launch for a recently released book, China after Jiang, co-edited by Gang Lin and Xiaobo Hu. The two co-editors and a third contributor, Lowell Dittmer, discussed some of the themes presented in their new book, jointly published by the Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press.

Gang Lin pointed out that the new Chinese leadership has made great efforts to reconcile the Chinese Communist Party’s traditional doctrine with an increasingly diverse society, and redefine the Party as the vanguard not only of the working class, but also of the entire Chinese population, thus allowing private entrepreneurs to join the Party. The Party has also adopted a relatively open mind toward different “political civilizations,” acknowledging the necessity of coexistence and mutual learning among various social systems and cultures in the world. While the new leadership has no desire to change the one-Party system, it is trying to expand power-sharing among Party elites, develop checks and balances within the Party, and increase intra-party electoral competition. In the short term, the Party’s preemptive strategy of recruiting private entrepreneurs and developing “intra-party democracy” may thwart public demand for radical political reform in China, Lin concluded.

Xiaobo Hu argued that Beijing’s socioeconomic policies during the reform era since 1978 have mainly benefited insiders, including current government officials and state business managers, former bureaucrats, and former state enterprise managers, thus creating a new institutional foundation for China’s property rights system in the post-Jiang era. By investigating both the recent history that has led to such institution building, and the core elements of the state–private sector relationship, Hu finds inescapable consequences of past choices on current institutions. For the foreseeable future, the state–private sector relationship is likely to follow the old trajectory of unbalanced development along with political elitism. Unbalanced development will continue to benefit the insiders at the expense of workers and many others, Hu predicted.

Lowell Dittmer concentrated on pre-existing and emerging rules governing power succession. According to Dittmer, China’s leadership transition is simultaneously moving along both formal and informal politics tracks. Formally, the selection of ministerial, provincial, and regional military leaders proceeds with considerable transparency and modest competition. Informally, incumbents and candidates at the top level are maneuvering for power with political opacity. The political stakes for, and policy difference between, winners and losers are rather subtle, however. Dittmer maintained that as the Chinese elite structure today is no longer divided by ideology (as in the Mao era) or policy cleavages (as in the Deng era), change within the top leadership is unlikely to bring about dramatic domestic policy shifts in the short term. Likewise, it is unlikely that there will be broad departures in Beijing’s foreign policy for the foreseeable future.

This book launch highlighted a potentially unstable China in desperate need of strong institutions to bring order and regularity to the country. Whether Hu Jintao and his “fourth-generation” colleagues will succeed in providing those institutions and their concomitant stability, however, is one of the large question marks hovering over post-Jiang China, as well as over China-watchers in the United States.

Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program
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