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Leadership transition in China is less transparent and more unpredictable than that in liberal democracies. The postponement of the 16th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from September to November has stimulated fevered speculations among China watchers about the upcoming leadership transition in China. Who will decide the outcome of the leadership transition in China? If Jiang Zemin wants to stay in power, what would be the institutional constraints on him? What is the factional landscape of China’s political succession? How are factions within the Party divided, and what are their attitudes toward Jiang’s retirement and Hu Jintao’s succession? What are the implications of China’s leadership transition on the country’s domestic development and foreign policy? Should the United States care about these domestic political developments in China?

Six distinguished China experts gathered at the Woodrow Wilson Center to explore these timely issues for a September 17 symposium co-sponsored by the Asia Program and the University of California system–wide Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. The six speakers for the symposium were Susan Shirk of the University of California at San Diego, Lyman Miller of the Hoover Institution, Lowell Dittmer of the University of California at Berkeley, Wilson Center Fellow Cheng Li of Hamilton College, Wilson Center Fellow David Shambaugh of The George Washington University, and Richard Baum of the University of California at Los Angeles. Their essays are contained in a newly released Asia Program Special Report: The 16th CCP Congress and Leadership Transition in China. On the next day, Shirk, Miller and Dittmer spoke at a breakfast workshop on Capitol Hill on the same topic, joined by a group of senior congressional staff.

Shirk argued that the outcome of China’s succession will be decided by the "selectorate"—several hundred Party, government, and military officials who are members of the CCP’s Central Committee. While the Party leader Jiang Zemin is reluctant to retire and campaigning to stay on, the majority of the selectorate probably want him to go. However, it is difficult and politically risky for the opposition to organize collective action to block Jiang’s effort to retain his position, unless a prominent official dares to speak out in favor of it and thereby becomes a focal point for the group. A compromise solution may allow Jiang and the other retiring Party veterans to continue to exercise informal influence over policymaking for a number of years.

Miller examined China’s leadership succession in the context of the country’s institutional development over the last two decades. According to Miller, Jiang’s designated successor, Hu Jintao, has been groomed to be the next Party leader for ten years. This is the centerpiece of a broader effort begun be Deng Xiaoping two decades ago to institutionalize China’s political processes by establishing more stable and predictable routines. If Jiang rewrites the script and retains his position, the effort to institutionalize China’s political processes will have suffered a key setback, a move of profound significance for the future of Chinese politics.

Lowell Dittmer placed China’s leadership transition in the factional landscape. While the CCP does not recognize the legitimacy of factionalism within the Party, factional networks of patron-client ties have been a pervasive feature of Chinese politics. The Chinese factions today appear to be motivated entirely by the career ambitions—rather than ideological or policy orientation—of their members. Dittmer identifies the four main factions in China today as the "Shanghai gang" surrounding Jiang, the faction associated with China’s number two leader Li Peng, the retired Old Guard faction, and Hu Jintao’s followers. Only the "Shanghai gang" clearly supports Jiang’s efforts to retain the Party leadership.

Cheng Li shifted the focus from the issue of whether Jiang Zemin will retire to the competition between Hu Jintao and Jiang’s closest associate, Zeng Qinghong, finding Hu and Zeng have different political and regional constituencies. Hu’s past political association was largely with the Chinese Communist Youth League and he has spent most of his adult life in some of the poorest provinces in China’s inland region. In contrast, Zeng, with strong family ties within the upper level of the Party, has thus far spent almost his entire career in coastal regions. This ongoing contention between Hu and Zeng can potentially lead to disastrous consequences for China, but the leaders may also find a way to compromise and cooperate.

David Shambaugh discussed leadership transition in the army, which reflects a continued trend of military professionalism. Arguing that Jiang will retire from the Party, state and military leadership, Shambaugh described the new faces in the military leadership that reflect the trend of a "bifurcation" between military and political elites in China—politicians no longer have career experience in the military, and military officers have more corporate autonomy and reduced influence in politics. However, whether this trend will move the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from being a "Party army" to being a "national army" is the big question for the future.

Richard Baum went beyond the issue of power transfer and looked into the prospects for meaningful political reform in the post-Jiang China. As suggested by democratization in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, such as the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, Taiwan under Chiang Ching-kuo, and South Korea under General Chun Doo-huan, fundamental political change could take place under leaders whose personal backgrounds contained little hint that they would initiate systemic transformation. China’s new leadership thus may be open to institutional change under intensified sociopolitical stress, Baum maintained.

While the six scholars differed whether Jiang will fully retire from his current positions at the forthcoming National Party Congress, they all agreed that China’s leadership transition will have minimal impact on the country’s domestic and foreign policies. An orderly leadership transition, however, will signify a mature government that the United States can more easily work with. This symposium provided a timely assessment of leadership transition in China as well as its implications for the country’s domestic development and international relations.