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4:30pm ET, 4/16














Jockeying begins for China's top job

In this story:

New paths to reform

Breaking new ground


HONG KONG, China -- Will Hu Jintao make a difference? As China enters a crucial new century, all eyes are on the Vice President, who is emerging as the "core" of the next generation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership.

Even though Hu made it to the ruling Politburo Standing Committee as early as 1992, the 58-year-old protege of Deng Xiaoping has kept a low profile so as not to be seen as upstaging more senior colleagues.

Lately, however, there are signs Hu, who earned his spurs in the relatively liberal Communist Youth League (CYL), has made moves to build up a national stature as both President Jiang Zemin's successor, and more importantly, as a reformer in tune with the requirements of the 21st century.

As befitting his role as Jiang's heir-apparent, many of Hu's reformist sayings have been couched in terms of ways and means to flesh out and develop the president's teachings.

New paths to reform

It seems clear, however, that the Vice President is calling upon cadres of the younger, so-called 'fourth' generation (officials in their late 50s to early 60s) to hack out new paths in economic, and even political, reform.

In an internal talk late last year on handling the problems and opportunities of the new millennium, Hu displayed a knack for cool-headed assessment of China's harsh reality.

He ticked off the following challenges: The severe defeat of the world socialist enterprise; the complex contradictions and difficulties in economic, political and cultural spheres caused by economic restructuring; as well as cadres "crisis of faith" in the socialist system.

Although he made no concrete recommendations on what cadres should do he has laid down two principles.

One is that cadres must follow what he calls a "scientific" path.

  • We must ask leading cadres to arm their brains with scientific theory," Hu told a recent meeting to discuss Jiang's ideological dictums.

  • We must come to a scientific knowledge of new situations and new tasks facing the party.

Breaking new ground

Hu's second requirement is that cadres must break new ground in reform.

While touring Shanghai late last year, Hu urged local officials to "grasp new opportunities, face new challenges, create new superior conditions, and realize new developments".

Because of the sensitive nature of political reform, Hu has seldom ventured into this area.

However, at a meeting with trade union officials last month, Hu struck the pose of a defender of worker's rights.

He urged trade unions and workers to "wage a forthright struggle" against enterprise chiefs who exploited employees by neglecting work-place safety and extending their work hours without compensation.

Beijing analysts say it's unlikely Hu would lay bare his road-map to the future any time soon.

Path to the presidency

According to the succession scenario, Hu would succeed Jiang as party general secretary at the 16th party congress in 2002 and take over the state presidency half a year later.

However, given the likelihood that the 74-old Jiang would hang on to power in some capacity, it's unlikely Hu can really take the helm until the 17th party congress in 2007.

Only then would Hu spell out his path to reform.

According to a Beijing academic close to the Hu camp, the vice president has set up a personal think tank to develop new ideas for the future.

The Beijing academic said Hu had asked members of this group to look into the ideology and organization of social democratic parties of Western Europe, including the ruling Social Democratic Party in Germany.

"It is unlikely that Hu will sponsor radical ideas such as transforming the CCP into a European-style social democratic party," he said.

"Nor is it likely that Hu will soon abandon the principle of the supremacy of one-party rule, and embrace multi-party politics. But he is interested in humanizing orthodox socialism and in pursuing gradual political reform to make the party more relevant."

Cautious reform

It is understood that liberal cadres and scholars close to Hu have studied various possibilities for cautious political reform.

They include extending popular elections, first begun by Deng in the late 1980s, from the village to the county and township levels.

Hu is known to have advised Jiang to indicate in recent policy pronouncements that citizens should be encouraged "to participate in politics in an orderly manner.

According to another Beijing source how soon Hu can implement his reforms depends on the speed with which he can establish his position at the "core" of the fourth generation.

After all, his relationship to putative mentor Jiang is complicated.

Since Hu does not come from Jiang's own Shanghai faction the president is said to have doubts about Hu's ultimate loyalty.

And Jiang has for the past few years groomed his alter ego, head of the party's Organization Department Zeng Qinghong, as a possible successor or at least a counterweight to Hu.

Since Jiang's failure last October to promote Zeng, an alternate Politburo member, into a full member of the supreme council there are indications the president has decided to give Hu fuller backing.

For example, Hu was recently made head of a steering group on personnel issues to be decided at the 16th congress.

Last month, Hu was designated by Jiang to make concluding remarks on two ideological movements started by the president.

On both occasions, Hu has given a strongly reformist spin to Jiang's teachings.

Equally significant, there are signs that the self-effacing Hu has taken steps to grab more power and limelight, taking aggressive steps to promote proteges to both central and regional positions.

Analysts say if Hu could keep his momentum on both the policy and personnel fronts for another year or so, the chances of his emerging as at least first among equals at the 16th party congress would be greatly enhanced.

This analysis was written for CNN Interactive.


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