Transferring power in China

All eyes are on Hu as he takes control of the world’s most populous state.

There was reason to breathe a sigh of relief Sunday as China’s former President Jiang Zemin ceded control over the military to his successor, Hu Jintao. The move marks the first peaceful transfer of power in China under Communist rule, a significant achievement in a country whose recent history is littered with bloody battles over succession.

Hu faces a formidable set of challenges if he is to make his climb to power worthwhile. Atop his list of priorities should be a slate of political reforms that, if embraced, would give more than a billion Chinese their first taste of democracy.

The Communist Party has so far managed to maintain its monopoly on power in the face of an economic revolution fed largely by capitalist reforms. That strategy will one day come unhinged if China’s leaders continue to smother a simmering push for democracy and human rights. Hu should recognize that Tiananmen Square will not be the last spontaneous outburst of freedom in China, and the next will not be as easily quieted.

Hu’s most recent moves have not inspired confidence. He has referred to Western-style democracy as a “blind alley” for China and shows no intention of moving the country beyond its deeply corrupt one-party system.

The new leader also confronts a region and a world wary of China’s growing military strength. The massive modernization of the Chinese military, begun under Jiang, can only aggravate the war of words between Taiwan and the mainland. Hu can establish himself as a statesman by affirming China’s commitment to a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Taiwan.

Hu should take advantage of China’s increasing international stature by showing genuine leadership on the world’s most pressing issues, beginning with the environment. Without a sustained effort to limit pollution, China will undercut global efforts to protect the environment.

All eyes are now on Hu as he takes control of the world’s most populous state and a growing economic giant. He must now work to ensure the next transfer of power in China takes place at the ballot box.