Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 7

By Michael E. Marti

China is entering into a transition period as the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) prepares to hold its 16th Party Congress in the fall of 2002. At that time, most members of the current Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the third-generation leaders–Mao representing the first and Deng the second–are expected to retire and hand over official power to the fourth-generation leadership. It will be a period of relative instability as a new leadership tries to establish its authority and fraught with pitfalls for U.S. foreign policy.


At next year’s party congress, the third generation of CCP leaders–Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, Zhu Rongji, Li Lanqing, Li Ruihuan and Wei Jianxing–are expected to retire and hand over “official” power to a fourth-generation, represented by the current Chinese vice president and PSC member Hu Jintao and current Politburo members Wen Jiabao, Li Changchun and Wu Bangguo, as well as Jiang aide Zeng Qinghong. This new generation of leaders, born in the 1940s, are mainly technocrats, who lack the revolutionary experience of the third generation, but have more education and a greater understanding of international affairs.

This new generation of leaders, however, will not be totally free agents. In the near term, they will have to acquiesce to the guidance of the third generation, who will assume the role of “elders.” The new generation will have to govern in the midst of factional power struggles within the party. There will be posturing for the public, key support groups and mentors that will make for unstable domestic politics and foreign relations. Such posturing will at a minimum include:

–a strong nationalistic position that includes support for unification with Taiwan, which will take an anti-American tone;

–a strong stand against corruption, but not so strong as to threaten the communist party system;

–strong support for economic growth, but not elimination of the domestically important state owned enterprises, despite WTO obligations and promises;

–greater efforts to ease the plight of the peasants; and,

–above all else, a strong commitment to internal stability.

It will require time before the new leaders are confidently in control of the administrative process and substantive issues and able to establish a sense of normalcy in daily operations. As a result, during this period, the new leadership will have little room for compromise with America.

The critical formal institution during the transition period will be the Central Military Commission (CMC), as opposed to the informal institution of the “elders.” The CMC was the source of Deng’s power that enabled him to force his economic reforms on the party. It is responsible for ensuring the continuity of those reforms, internal stability and the primacy of the party. If Jiang is permitted to stay on as chairman of the CMC, he will be able to exercise the ultimate, behind-the-scenes power, as Deng Xiaoping did in his final years.

Ultimately, the lineup of the new leadership will be a compromise, indicative of the major fault lines over policy and power within the party. The new lineup will include proteges of the “elders,” to protect them from future corruption charges and to maintain family and/or factional power, the economic reformers, those pushing for a continued state role in the economy, and, finally and necessarily, the PLA.


The Bush administration’s characterization of China as a “strategic competitor,” as opposed to the Clinton administration’s “strategic partner,” will inevitably push the fourth generation to view all issues with the U.S. through the lens of a zero-sum, we/they perspective. Indeed, this is already happening. China has detained U.S. citizens in violation of consular agreements and made an issue of U.S. surveillance flights along its coast, resulting in the accidental downing of an EP-3 aircraft on 1 April 2001. China continues to protest U.S. plans to go forward with theater and national missile defense. It has voiced displeasure at the Bush administration for allowing Taiwan’s President, Chen Shui-bian, to stop in the U.S. on his way to Latin America and receive official delegations and at President Bush for entertaining the Dalai Lama at the White House. Finally, China has signed a 20-year treaty with Russia aimed at unspecified third party aggression, most probably the United States.

It is not likely that relations between the two powers will improve in the near future as the power structure in China evolves. Recognizing the situation, however, the United States can still carry on with effective bilateral relations. America can construct a proactive policy designed to foster already acknowledged mutual goals–that is, economic development, Korean stability, South Asian denuclearization and, more recently, cooperation against global terrorism. The administration should avoid those issues on which the leaders have no room to maneuver.

One such issue is human rights. For the Chinese, it is a matter of domestic stability. They will not permit any worker, peasant or religious/political movement to expand into a national movement that could threaten domestic security. Likewise, separatist movements in Xinjiang and Tibet are issues related to internal stability. The United States must understand their concerns and recognize that there is nothing it can do to effectively change their attitudes.

As regards the detention of U.S. citizens or green card holders, the administration should be uncompromising in demanding strict compliance with consular agreements. China must be put on notice that any harassment campaign against U.S. citizens or green card holders will result in immediate retaliation with selective sanctions, such as in economics and trade.

On the issue of WTO compliance, America should take an uncompromising stance. China will undoubtedly waiver in its commitments, when the requirements of compliance lead to domestic unrest. The United States must remain focused on the long-term objective of economic growth and stability. However, any protests, without decisive action, like sanctions, will be ignored in Beijing.

As regards NMD/TMD, the administration needs to engage China in a strategic dialogue, but nevertheless press ahead with its program. It should continue to push for greater transparency in weapons programs, publicize violations of nonproliferation agreements and impose legal penalties where they cause the most impact.

On the issue of Taiwan, the new leaders will probably defer to the PLA, the embodiment of Chinese nationalism. The United States should thus caution Taiwan to avoid needlessly provoking Beijing, but, at the same time, warn Beijing that it will respond forcefully to any attempted military solution, effectively putting an end to the policy of strategic ambiguity. Ultimately, China will not needlessly risk economic development with a war.

Finally, America should recognize that China’s pledge to cooperate on combating global terrorism amounts to no more than good public relations and will not lead to anything of substance. China does not want the United States to establish a presence in Central Asia as a result of seeking out bin Laden, but it is aware that world opinion demands a public stand with America against terrorism and the events of September 11, 2001.

Thus, the prospects for dialogue and normal relations are not good during the transition period, but Washington should ignore the rhetoric, play to areas of mutual national interest, and emphasize patience, realism, economics and a clearly stated determination to support Taiwan in the event of a PRC military move. Such an approach should encourage China to choose cooperation as its national interest, over confrontation.

Dr. Michael E. Marti is employed by the U.S. Department of Defense. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the Institute for Strategic Studies at National Defense University, specializing in Chinese national security and foreign policy.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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