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The Wars of the Chinese Succession

What political reforms will Hu Jintao make in China? That is the question to ask the 59-year old engineer who will take over as head of the world's biggest and longest-ruling communist party next month. While talk about the horse-trading surrounding Hu's accession to power - and President Jiang Zemin's seeming desire not to leave the stage - has dominated Chinese affairs since summer, more important to China's future is an appreciation of Mr. Hu's inheritance and what he will do with it.

Hu Jintao's career does not inspire optimism. A 1998 Xinhua report quoted him as saying that "A good leader should carry forward democracy." But Hu's idea of democracy doesn't appear to contain ideas about the direct election of top leaders or of guaranteed individual freedoms.

According to Wu Jiaxiang, a former staffer on the Communist Central Committee secretariat who worked on political reforms before being jailed for three years after the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, Hu believes in rule by elites chosen through a rigorous examination and approval process. In internal speeches, Hu identified the grooming of cadres and improved party operations as the keys to political reform. Those ideals were reflected in a new law governing cadres passed in July 2002 that Hu personally announced. This elitist model appeals to Chinese intellectuals who desire refined rulers.

Hu wants nothing to do with increasing political participation or outside checks on communist party power. In various speeches, he warned against fiddling with the party's Leninist foundation. He advocates greater internal party democracy but rejects system-wide democracy. His top three aides in the Central Committee - Ling Jihua, Zheng Xinli, and He Yiting - are big advocates of "cadre hearing" reforms in which internal peer-review is used to evaluate government leaders.