At the core of Jiang’s success was a grim bargain: exchanging political expression for stability and economic growth. Jiang’s government delivered a growing economy, but for long-term political stability, a peaceful transition of power was needed. Once dismissed as a manipulable lightweight, Jiang acquired all of the titles that, collectively, made him China’s leader: President of the People’s Republic, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and, most importantly, General Secretary of the Communist Party. Would he willingly give them up? Deng Xiaoping, wary of the kind of cult of personality that had sustained Mao Zedong, had implemented limits of two five-year terms for Party Secretary: the test would come in 2002, when the second of Jiang’s two terms would end.
As the congress approached, intrigue intensified. Jiang Zemin, far from laying a foundation for the transfer of power, made bold and sweeping pronouncements about Party ideology. The “Three Represents” — Jiang’s theoretical renovation of the relationship between the Party and the people — assumed a more central role. Rumors circulated that Jiang was considering staying on as General Secretary, some said at the urging of Hu Jintao. The Party’s summer meeting to prepare for the National Congress lasted longer than usual, extending past the August 1 holiday and fueling speculation about dissent within the Party leadership. And even after the meeting adjourned and the date for the Congress was set, rumors about the size and composition of the Politburo persisted.
To the surprise of some, there was little drama at the 16th Party Congress in 2002. As planned, Hu Jintao was named Party Secretary. That is not to say that Jiang disappeared. The Three Represents were made part of the CCP canon, ratified as a guiding principle. And the enlarged Politburo was filled with Jiang’s supporters.
Most concretely, Jiang Zemin retained his position as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Political Scientist Joseph Fewsmith went so far as to describe the meeting as “The Succession that Didn’t Happen” in the prestigious journal The China Quarterly. Looking at the importance of the Three Represents at the meeting, the prominence of Jiang’s supporters in the new leadership, and Jiang’s continuation as military commision chair, Fewsmith argued that, “expected to be the star of the show, Hu Jintao was left to applauding Jiang’s accomplishments.”
In the wake of the meeting, Fewsmith wondered about the very same issues that China’s leadership was struggling with. “The outcome of the congress,” he wrote, “made clear that meaningful political succession remains at least five years away. In forcefully asserting his power, Jiang opens up questions about the degree to which political governance, particularly at the top of the system, has been institutionalized.”
The key question was the military chairmanship. For decades, the military’s loyalty to the political leadership was assumed to be guaranteed because of the Long March experience. Jiang lacked that automatic legitimacy, but had clearly gained the endorsement of the armed forces during his decade in charge. Rumors persisted that Jiang would retain his chairmanship for at least five years, and perhaps indefinitely.
So it was both an anticlimax and a surprise when, in September 2004, less than two years after the Party Congress that installed Hu as general secretary, Jiang Zemin resigned his position. Jiang certainly remained an important force behind the scenes, but the move was widely seen as completing the orderly transition of power. In his book, McGregor quotes Chinese newspaper editor Zhou Ruijin: “Hu’s transition finally took the Chinese government out of the imperial age and ensured it was no longer a one-man show.”
For a while, perhaps.
The next transition would take place in 2012, but Xi Jinping’s ascension to the height of the CCP hierarchy was political hardball, not orderly succession: charismatic rival Bō Xīlái 薄熙来 remains in prison. Once in power, Xi dismantled many of the checks on authoritarianism that had been developed. A sweeping “anti-corruption” campaign was an effective tool to root out bribery but also a cudgel to silence challengers. Term limits were done away with. There is no sign of Xi leaving office anytime soon.
But for a moment, in 2004, it appeared that China might have achieved that ideal “peaceful transition of power” that so many nations these days aspire to.
This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.