Hu Becomes Undisputed Leader of China

President Hu Jintao's (search) new status as commander of China's military should strengthen efforts to fight corruption and control a surging economy, forcing resistant lower-level officials to recognize Hu as their undisputed leader, analysts said Monday.

Former President Jiang Zemin's (search) decision to hand over his last post as military chief on Sunday, almost two years after Hu succeeded him as Communist Party leader, ended tensions over control that had let local officials resist pressure to cut spending and carry out painful reforms, the analysts said.

"This is a very significant event," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China (search) specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Hu really has the future in his hands at this moment."

The consolidation of China's top party and military posts in Hu's control is expected to give him and his premier, Wen Jiabao, a freer hand to act as they wrestle with huge challenges ranging from rural poverty to fighting rampant corruption that is undermining public acceptance of communist rule.

It also could help a government austerity campaign aimed at cooling off an economy that is growing by more than 9 percent a year, threatening to ignite politically dangerous inflation and weaken China's fragile banking industry.

Despite repeated orders from Beijing, local officials have balked at orders to cancel major construction and other big spending projects — austerity moves that could cost local jobs and reduce opportunities to line their pockets. Hu and Wen reportedly have been forced to visit Shanghai and other areas to compel obedience in person.

"As long as there was the impression that there was political infighting at the top, there was a reason for local officials who didn't like the changes to hold out in hopes of getting a different option," said Lieberthal.

But now, he said, "at lower levels it will be seen that the wave of the future is the Hu Jintao leadership, and that should tighten discipline."

Hu, 61, was groomed for a decade to succeed the 78-year-old Jiang as part of an elaborately planned handover of power to a younger generation of leaders.

Despite his new military status, Hu is the weakest Chinese leader of the communist era, surrounded by potential rivals in a consensus-based party leadership. He shares its ruling nine-member Standing Committee with at least five Jiang allies.

But the end of uncertainty over the military post could help the methodical, diplomatic Hu to solidify his political alliances and push out Jiang's proteges, said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong.

"In the next party congress," a meeting due in 2007 to decide the party's political plans and leadership, "there could be a major shake-up," Cheng said.

Hu's new authority also should help anti-graft efforts by discouraging lower-level officials from trying to protect corrupt colleagues and others, he said.

"There will be less resistance," Cheng said.

Several times, Hu has been rumored to be preparing major speeches on political reform, only to deliver bland restatements of party policy — a suggestion that he didn't feel his position was strong enough to launch any bold initiatives.

Hu has talked vaguely about promoting "socialist democracy," but that isn't expected to include opposition politics or free elections. In a speech last week, he rejected Western-style democracy, saying it would "lead China into a dead end."

"Now people expect Hu Jintao to act," Cheng said. "If he cannot come up with a political reform program, there will be disappointment."

Elsewhere, Hu's consolidation of power could bring a more liberal attitude toward Hong Kong, which has been torn by political strife over popular demands for full democracy, Hong Kong media said Monday.

Jiang had been a staunch backer of Hong Kong's unpopular leader, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who is widely seen as a puppet to the Beijing leadership and powerful local tycoons.

"With Jiang's resignation, there will be fewer internal political struggles within the central government," Chinese University mainland expert Ong Yew-kim was quoted as telling The Standard newspaper.

"Hu now can freely adopt a softened and pragmatic approach in dealing with Hong Kong affairs," Ong said. "His policies on Hong Kong will no longer be interfered with by Jiang."