Path to enlightenment or tool of propaganda?

China's New Rulers

January 30, 2004

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book is its genesis. It is based on internal draft investigation reports, prepared by the Chinese Communist Party, on candidates for the new standing committee of the Politburo that was to be appointed in 2003. In late 2001, officials in Beijing sent material from these drafts to a Chinese writer living in New York who uses the pseudonym Zong Hairen. Apparently, they expressed the wish that he should inform the world about the personal histories of China's new rulers. Using these drafts, Zong wrote a book titled Disidai ( The Fourth Generation ), which was published in Chinese in New York in 2002. China's New Rulers is based on this book and augmented with interviews given by Zong to Andrew Nathan and Bruce Gilley, the two China scholars who edited it.

The book has been edited to make it more accessible to a western audience but it remains an easier read for specialists as it deals with a large cast, including many who are little known outside China. It is unfortunate that no index has been provided. There are summaries of the careers, lives and views of Hu Jintao, the man who became president, Wen Jiabao, the new premier, and various other major figures. There are also thumbnail sketches of lesser figures, referred to as "the supporting cast".

We learn that the new leaders are determined modernisers with little interest in ideology and a pragmatic attitude towards policy. They are bent, above all, on bringing about China's development. To this end, they are agreed on the importance of integrating China into the world economy and safeguarding good relations with the US. Unsurprisingly, they all have rich experience of working in the bureaucracy of China's party-state, but they are far less ignorant of the world outside than previous generations of Chinese leaders. All apparently believe that they must keep control in China through party rule, and that any threat to that system is a threat to the country's interests.

But they are not all made from the same mould. The book contains previously unavailable information about the history and opinions of these high officials, which makes it possible to see them as individuals who differ in their approaches to the problems they face. Some are prepared to envisage reforms that would give the media more freedom and allow more criticism of Communist Party institutions, while others favour maintaining stern restrictions. They differ also in the amount of concern they show about social injustices and the great regional inequalities that are a dominant feature of China's recent development.

The book provides confident predictions about who would be appointed to which office in 2003. Most of these turned out to be correct. Hu did indeed, as had long been signalled, become the president. Wen, as expected, was made premier of the State Council. However, some of the forecasts were wrong. The former president, Jiang Zemin, managed to retain the post of chair of the Central Military Commission instead of handing it over to Hu.

The chairmanship of the standing committee of the National People's Congress, went not to Li Ruihuan but to Wu Bangguo, a protege of Jiang. Li, known as a liberal with the common touch, who had been critical of Jiang in the past, was instead forced to retire.

Zong's inaccurate predictions raise questions about the book's sources. Of course, it is possible that, when the information was sent out of China, things were expected to go one way, and that, in the end, they simply went another. Perhaps some of the selectors changed their minds in the run-up to the appointments. They may have been affected by twists in negotiations and bargaining of which we know nothing. But it is also possible that the leak of information, on which the book is based, was itself a strategy used by one faction in a struggle over the appointments. Ironically, a book that provides so many insights into the personalities who will govern China in the next decade is itself based on a mystery that leaves us with unanswered questions.

Delia Davin is professor of Chinese studies, University of Leeds.

China's New Rulers: The Secret Files

Editor - Andrew J. Nathan and Bruce Gilley
Publisher - Granta
Pages - 237
Price - £8.99
ISBN - 1 59017 072 5

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