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MATTER OF SURVIVAL: The leadership change in China is a reminder that the party must undertake reforms if it is to survive
THE current leadership transition in China is widely described as a once-a-decade change-over, as though it is rooted in convention if not in law.
In fact, 63 years after gaining power, the Communist Party is only now beginning to create the mechanisms for leadership succession, leaving the world in the dark as to how exactly or when power will be transferred in the emerging superpower.
While it was known that President Hu Jintao would give up his position as general-secretary during the party's week-long congress, it was not known whether he would also give up his other hat as head of the military -- a post that his predecessor Jiang Zemin had clung to for two more years after stepping down as party leader, thus creating two power centres.
It was up to Hu to decide whether he would step down as chairman of the central military commission or to remain.
The lack of a tried-and-tested succession system, even though the party has been in power for 63 years, reflects the strongman leadership that characterised the regime for almost half a century, with chairman Mao Zedong, the first leader, serving from the time the People's Republic of China was created in 1949 until his death in 1976.
Deng Xiaoping became the country's new strongman two years later. In an attempt to change the political culture, Deng never sought titles, such as party chairman, president or prime minister. However, that created another problem because, by wielding power in the absence of titles, he turned those who ostensibly held the highest posts into figureheads.
Deng was acknowledged as China's paramount leader until his death in 1997 even though at one time his only position was honorary chairman of the China Bridge Association.
So powerful was Deng that he was able to decide on the country's next leader, Jiang Zemin, after the Tiananmen Square turmoil of 1989, and to pick Hu Jintao as Jiang's successor.
With Hu now stepping down, his successor, Xi Jinping, is the first party leader not to have been anointed by a founding father of the communist nation.
Xi's selection, through a non-transparent process five years ago, is being confirmed by the congress this year.
Now, for the first time, there is no "paramount leader" to make the ultimate decisions. The new generation of leaders will have to decide on their own how to tackle problems and identify successors -- with some advice, no doubt, from retired officials, such as the 86-year-old Jiang.
Much of the credit for the reforms since Mao's death goes to Deng, who got rid of such feudal practices as lifelong tenure and instituted term limits and retirement ages.
But much remains to be done. The country needs a free media, a judiciary that is not under the party's thumb and an anti-corruption agency that is genuinely independent.
However, as the state news agency Xinhua explained, certain forms of reform are not acceptable in a one-party state.
"The core of reform is to help the Party maintain leadership status, enhance the rule of law, and expand people's democracy," it quoted Li Chongfu, a veteran Marxism scholar with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as saying. "Multi-party rule is not a goal. Such a political system is intolerable in a socialist state."
The Communist Party, which last year celebrated its 90th birthday, is concerned about its longevity.
As Minxin Pei pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, no one-party regime has ever survived for more than 74 years, the record established by the Soviet Union. One-party rule in Mexico ended after 71 years, and the Kuomintang regime, including its time on the China mainland and in Taiwan, ruled continuously for 71 years.
The official People's Daily newspaper in its online edition posed the problem in a Chinese context, saying that "every dynasty in history thrived rapidly and also perished all of a sudden."
But, the paper said, the Communist Party has the confidence that it will not be subject to this law of history. This, it implied, is because "China is striding steadily forward along the new path to democracy."
Xinhua asserted: "Both competitive and non-competitive -- one-candidate-for-one-seat -- elections are legitimate forms in practice."
This is an extremely narrow definition of democracy. It falls woefully short of what is needed. Understandably, the party is fearful that if it institutes genuine reforms, it may not survive.
But it should realise that if it doesn't institute such reforms, its day of reckoning may come even earlier.