A Chinese Party

Expect a Sino status quo to emerge from the upcoming Communist Party Congress.

On October 15, members of the Communist Party of China will meet at the 17th National Congress to discuss policy and party positions. Most speculation leading up to the congress is focused on personnel changes that the party will announce. Signs indicate, though, that this focus on personnel is excessive. Granted, surprises are always possible in Chinese politics. But at the Nixon Center on Wednesday, China experts David M. Lampton, Randall Schriver and Minxin Pei offered their best predictions: Personnel changes will have little effect on policy, and policy continuity will prevail.

Much talked-about leadership changes will likely produce a "status quo team", said Pei, Senior Associate and Director of the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Furthermore, in China, the individual traditionally has minimal effect on the bigger picture, as Chinese policy is driven by consensus. And regardless, the individuals will be otherwise occupied. President Hu Jintao's final years in power will be filled with attempts to shore up a good legacy. The premier and the general secretary will be focused on gaining experience and avoiding mistakes. And those in line for party positions have been assimilated into party culture after years of service.

Although the newcomers will have little effect on policy, there are still major policy issues facing the party. Lampton, Dean of Faculty and Director of China Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS, noted that economic stability and the threat of inflation are areas of concern, as Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have not effectively controlled an ever-growing money supply. Whether the newcomers will be more effective at controlling the economy and focusing on domestic consumption is open to debate. China's Taiwan policy will likely remain consistent, having moved from a stance of "peaceful reunification" to one of "no independence now" under Hu.

Democratic reform, the "third rail of Chinese politics" and typically a no-go area for Chinese politicians, Pei remarked, will once again be glossed over. Top-level leadership is not and will not be interested in political reform. Current grass-roots movements and discussions about inter-party democracy and pluralism in Chinese government are not, according to Pei, to be taken very seriously.

If Hu is the congress' winner and his leadership is consolidated, Pei offered, it could provide the push to make major policy change, as was the case in 1997/1998 with Jiang Zemin. This is highly speculative, though. More likely and worrisome to Pei is "policy paralysis." Thus far, the Chinese government has responded to massive challenges with "empty rhetoric." And with Beijing's international showcase, the Olympic Games, less than a year away, posturing and stagnation will likely continue. This is particularly problematic given the major tests the country will soon confront: inflation, the stock market bubble and rising external backlash against China due to issues like the country's currency exchange rate. In light of these looming crises, the president may find it difficult to maintain his legacy.

Looking forward to the 2012 Party Congress, Lampton said that the one thing in which he has no confidence is the stability of the elite. There are multiple candidates that could fill Hu Jintao's shoes, and competition for the presidential position could shake up Chinese politics, affecting the United States.

Randall Schriver, founding partner of Armitage International LLC, discussed further the effects the congress will have on U.S.-China relations. Overall, U.S.-China relations are marked by consistent engagement, which will persist. More crucial, according to Schriver, are significant changes in the relationship that have been overshadowed by the focus on open dialogue.

The current degree of integration of the Chinese and U.S. governments is unprecedented. Schriver, a member of the State Department under President Clinton, noted that relations with the Chinese government were scripted during the Clinton years. Communication has since increased in frequency and breadth, with discussions now touching "every corner of the globe." Dialogue is routine and regular at every level of government, and this well-established framework and infrastructure will carry over to the next U.S. administration, regardless of personnel changes here and in China. But increased integration begets increased influence. Both domestic and foreign decisions within each country will inevitably affect the other, something future U.S. and Chinese governments must keep in mind.

Given this integration, it would seem likely that the role of foreign investment would be a topic of discussion for both governments, as Kevin Nealer of the Scowcroft group noted. But, Pei responded, this issue is not "on the radar screen" in China. Conversely, Schriver noted that this issue is a top priority for U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson.

U.S. and Chinese views also diverge on values, something often overlooked, according to Schriver. China maintains relationships with states that the United States often views as "bad", such as Iran, Burma and certain African countries. It isn't that China is purposely trying to be friends with America's enemies, but rather that China is trying to be friends with everyone and restrain those countries that don't play according to the rules, Lampton pointed out. But despite seemingly good Chinese intentions, the United States is still wary. This is apparent when contrasting U.S.-India and U.S.-China relations. India similarly associates with "bad" countries, but it shares democratic values with the United States and therefore inspires a greater degree of trust.