CHICAGO AND NEW YORK — On the surface, it looked like the happy ending to an old era in China and the fresh start of a new one when the new Chinese Communist leaders paraded out to meet the press at the conclusion of the 16th Party Congress last Friday.
But in reality, most Chinese describe the biggest power transition since the Communists took over in 1949 as huang tang bu huang yao - changing the water that's been soaked with herbs, not the herb itself.
The new leadership lineup was the result of months of political jockeying between President Jiang and other senior leaders. Delegates merely rubber-stamped whatever list was presented to them. With his unencumbered power over the succession, Mr. Jiang has managed to pack seven of the nine seats on the standing committee of the Politburo - the leadership core - with friends and protégés, securing his control over decisionmaking. Hu Jintao, Mr. Jiang's successor as the party's general secretary, has hardly any potential collaborators.
The good news for the Chinese people is that the new generation will continue Jiang's legacy of economic reforms and opening to the West.
But by tinkering with the leadership power balance, Jiang has assured a degree of uncertainty - even chaos. By making it difficult for Mr. Hu to ease into his new position and take firm control, it will be impossible for major policies to be properly implemented while leaders maneuver for power. Jiang has further skewed the power balance by keeping his position as head of the Military Commission, reversing the Communist principle that the military is under absolute control of the party. Now the military is more powerful.
When compared with former leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, Jiang's political prestige and authority are far inferior. He isn't one of the founders of the republic, and he lacks charisma. But - unlike Mao and Deng who constantly had to contend for power among their contemporary revolutionaries - he has had no powerful adversary to keep him in check; he has been able to centralize his power without formidable resistance from any opponents. Moreover, many of his peers in high positions have skeletons in their closets: They are tainted either with corruption or with family members connected with shady business deals.
Jiang's power ploy can only hinder Hu's future efforts to make policy changes.
Even though Hu was tapped as far back as 1992 by Deng Xiaoping to succeed Jiang, he is still better known to most Chinese for his good looks and nicely tailored suits than for what he has done and what he will do.
In his past jobs, either as the head of the Chinese Communist Youth League or the party secretary of China's southwestern province of Guizhou and then Tibet, he quietly climbed the political ladder, not through stellar accomplishment and personality, but through prudence, loyally carrying out policies from above, and avoiding mistakes.
Though Jiang and Premier Li Peng were tainted as architects of ruthless crackdowns on the Falun Gong spiritual group and the student democracy movement of 1989 respectively, Hu at least has the appearance of a moderate with most Chinese (who do not associate him with the notorious suppression of popular movements, even though he was party secretary in Tibet during the suppression of riots there in 1988).
This moderate tone distinguishes Hu's new generation of Communist leaders. By contrast, the old revolutionaries - like Mao - are remembered for their contributions to the founding of the republic and for their outspoken and colorful personalities.
The second generation of leaders, led by Deng, was known for its maturity, tempered by the sufferings during the many political upheavals under Mao.
The third generation, under Jiang, was made up of technocrats well-versed in Western technologies and cultures. Many of them were educated abroad and spoke foreign languages, and this international orientation constantly pushed them in search of Western recognition.
But not a single new member of the standing committee of the Politburo shares any of the experiences of these previous generations. They weren't forged in the fires of revolution and none have studied abroad. The new crop of Communist leaders come from the background of working within the party apparatus: they're adept at navigating power struggles, not at handling the struggling economy.
We believe these new leaders are more practical and flexible than their predecessors - they'll pursue new paths that bring immediate benefits but avoid risks that threaten their own interests. So don't expect drastic political reform loaded with risk - even after Jiang's demise. Their approach to resolving domestic and international conflicts will tend to be softer and more practical. Their lack of economic experience may lead them to adopt a more laissez-faire style, which is what Chinese entrepreneurs need.
When Jiang retires and moves to a luxurious house in Shanghai, built by his cronies, China will have two power centers: one in Beijing with Hu and one in Shanghai with Jiang. Many Chinese call this Jiang Hu Da Zhan - the war between Jiang and Hu. The struggles between the two could jeopardize the fragile stability of China.
• Wen Huang is a Chicago-based writer. Ho Pin is editor in chief of the New York-based Chinese language online news service, Chinesenewsnet.com. Both were born and raised in China.