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Published: Saturday, 11/23/2002

China changeover

The Communist Party in China has not been one for graceful transfers of power. In fact, until the recent party congress, turmoil had marked the accession of every new leader.

For that reason, the rise of Vice President Hu Jintao to succeed Jiang Zemin as party leader was something new. Unfortunately, this procedural novelty doesn't seem likely to translate into a new political direction - at least in the short term.

Mr. Hu, a 59-year-old former engineer, had been groomed to be the successor of Mr. Jiang, who is stepping down at 76 after 13 years in power.

Although his attitudes are little known to most Chinese, Mr. Hu is unlikely to take positions that differ much from his patron's. Even if he has his own well-hidden streak of independence, the new party chief won't soon get out from the old leader's shadow if he wanted to.

While the new Politburo Standing Committee is generally younger than the group formerly dominated by 70-somethings, it is still dominated by supporters of Mr. Jiang. In addition, the outgoing Chinese leader managed to get his theory called “The Three Represents” elevated to be part of the party's ideological canon. This theory is a tortured attempt to stay relevant to both the party's proletarian base and at the same time represent the new elite of entrepreneurs.

That would be a challenge for any one-party state not legitimized by regular democratic elections expressing the national will. As it is, China, theoretically classless, is a country of growing divisions. While some people are prospering as a result of economic liberalization, unemployment is a problem for others. Meanwhile, the government continues to crack down on any sign of dissent, not understanding that economic reforms logically beg a counterpart in the political realm.

For this expanding and potentially volatile nation, an elderly leader has cautiously handed over power to a slightly younger leader (who is likely to be confirmed as state president in March). It's change all right, but not much of one.

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