China leadership shifts, but it hopes US leaders don't

The weekend resignation of Jiang Zemin, China's de facto senior leader, presents whoever wins the US presidential election in November with a new foreign policy challenge - relations with China under its new leadership.

Mr. Jiang's departure will elevate President Hu Jintao to full military and political control of that huge country, which has been bent on economic expansion while clinging to communist ideology.

While some observers suggest this transition will result in only superficial changes, others have found Mr. Hu to be a somewhat elliptical character who could offer some surprises. He is as interested as any other Chinese leader in promoting China's ascendancy to great power status in the world, but has described this process as "peaceful rise."

China's desire for stable relations with the United States is unlikely to change, but there are several issues - Taiwan being the most notable - that could create sharp differences. As China becomes more assertive in the international arena, the US can expect it to speak out more directly.

Sources with whom I have spoken - in a position to know - declare that the Chinese regime, aside from its own leadership change, has concluded that President Bush is more likely than Senator Kerry to win the US presidential election and that, for China, this is a positive. The regime finds Mr. Bush's trade policies more congenial than Mr. Kerry's, and thinks it easier to read the intentions of an incumbent than a new resident in the White House.

Ironically, the leadership in Taiwan similarly favors Bush's reelection, but for different reasons. It believes Bush is a sturdy supporter of Taiwan's defense against any aggression from the Chinese mainland.

Hu is unlikely to take any sharply different posture toward Taiwan than Jiang Zemin. Though Beijing's policy toward Taiwan is that of "one China," the question of a "reunification" with the mainland is not on the front burner. What is, is the prospect of sharp Chinese reaction to any moves on the part of Taiwan to assert its "independence."

In Taiwan's election campaign earlier this year, President Chen Shui-bian raised the prospect of a referendum on the independence issue. Beijing reacted strongly. Bush, although a strong supporter of Taiwan's freedom, also weighed in, warning Mr. Chen against any provocative actions that might destabilize the situation in the region, such as triggering a Chinese assault across the Straits of Taiwan. Chen has backed off the referendum idea, but has talked obliquely about using "existing procedures" to test the same waters as would have been tested in a referendum on independence.

While the Chinese might shrink from an actual invasion that could draw the United States into a war defending Taiwan, there are other significant military measures - including the unleashing of a rocket barrage - that Beijing could take against Taiwan that would make for an ominous US-China confrontation.

What might offer a clue to China's intentions on Taiwan is the way it reacts to last week's legislative elections in Hong Kong. Since China took over Hong Kong from the British in 1997, it has permitted capitalism to thrive there, but discouraged too enthusiastic a campaign for democracy. Only 24 of the 60 members of the legislature are directly elected. Last week's results of the balloting for these gave Beijing little to fear. More than 55 percent of registered voters cast their ballots, and while there was a respectable vote in favor of democracy, democratic candidates did not fare as well as they had hoped, partly because of their own miscalculations and tactical mistakes. In the face of vigorous electioneering by Beijing, pro-Beijing candidates fared better than expected.

This has set back hopes in Hong Kong for early election, by universal suffrage, of all legislators and the chief executive, who has taken the place of the British governor under colonial rule. The current chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, a successful Chinese businessman, was selected by a committee of 800 pro-Beijing professionals and business executives. After last week's election results were in, Mr. Tung hinted that consideration might be renewed of drastic antisubversion legislation, which roused public furor earlier this year.

However, other reports suggest that Beijing has waved him off this idea. If true, this may be an indication that Beijing, drawing comfort from the election results, is taking a gentler approach to Hong Kong.

Such moderation would augur well for its approach to Taiwan and its relationship with the US.

• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News. He won the 1967 Pulitzer prize for his coverage of Indonesia.

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