Three Priorities of Chinese Leaders

Helping the people is the lowest priority, and little of it was done at the recent 18th Party Congress.

Any senior Chinese leader has three main priorities.

The first imperative is to keep the job; next comes ensuring that the Communist Party maintains its iron grip on political power without challenge from any quarter. Only then does task number three come into play: that of doing good things for the Chinese nation and people—provided the needed programs don’t pose any risk for priorities one and two.

At the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th congress that ended last week, its senior officials took care of the first two items as predicted. They made required leadership changes pretty much along expected lines, and did nothing to undermine the party’s lock on political power. Unfortunately, they didn’t do much worth noting about the third priority, that of initiating new policies to make life better for the general public. Beyond a few general promises without specifics, there was little indication that sorely needed political and economic reforms will be on the agenda anytime soon. Perhaps the only certain result of these meager results will be even less respect for the ruling party among a populace that has grown increasingly jaded and cynical about the people who lead it.

Whether or not this dissatisfaction will lead eventually—even if not soon—to dangerous social unrest remains an open question. An increasing number of critics within China have called for sweeping reforms, claiming that the rise of corruption, nepotism, repression and economic problems must be addressed urgently if adverse consequences are to be avoided. More transparency, accountability and a dash of democracy are near the top of most lists. But for the most part, last week’s leadership changes were conservative ones, suggesting that the new men (who are not in fact all that new, having spent long careers climbing the party’s bureaucratic ladder) will, like their predecessors, consider radical reforms much too risky. Just like the emperors of long ago, they seem to fear societal chaos might ensue and thus seem more comfortable suppressing criticism rather than responding to it.

Yet such forecasts must be treated with caution. Outsiders seldom know what any Chinese leader really thinks about anything, especially those new to office. They rise to the top mainly by keeping their heads down and their mouths shut, while quietly building support networks within the party. Only after securing reliable political bases can they steer policies in new directions—if they have such intentions in the first place. Whether or not members of the revised standing committee have reform ambitions remains unclear.

Streamlining the Leadership

The immediate task of the party congress, held every five years, was to install new men at the top as required by unofficial but strictly enforced age limits that prevent anyone over age 67 from beginning a five-year term in a senior post. (A two-term limit is also enforced.) That meant 14 of the party’s 25 Politburo members had to go, including seven members of what had been a nine-man standing committee that served as China’s ultimate authority. As expected, the bland Hu Jintao was replaced as the party’s general secretary by a smiling Xi Jinping, who also will take Hu’s lesser job of president next March. And the party’s number two post went to Li Keqiang, the holder of an economics PhD, who replaced Wen Jiabao. Both are holdovers from the previous standing committee, but the seven others were replaced by five new men, downsizing the core group that makes all key policy decisions by consensus.

For the reform-minded, the congress wasn’t total loss. At a so-called “press conference” (no questions allowed) as the congress closed, Xi vowed that satisfying the public “desire for a happy life is our mission.” And he conceded there are “many problems within the party that need to be resolved, particularly corruption, being divorced from the people, going through formalities and bureaucratism caused by some party officials.” However, this was mainly a bolder restatement of promises often made by outgoing President Hu, to limited effect, rather than a firm declaration of new directions.

(To his credit, Xi toughened his line last weekend in his first speech to the new Politburo. “A mass of facts tells us that if corruption becomes increasingly serious, it will inevitably doom the party and the state,” he warned, adding that “grave violations . . . have been extremely malign in nature and utterly destructive politically, shocking people to the core.” At the same time, though, he reaffirmed support for the Chinese version of socialism that makes possible so many opportunities for graft.)

There were a few other signs for limited optimism. It’s presumed the new and smaller standing committee will have fewer quarreling factions, thus streamlining the decision-making process. In addition, President Hu surrendered to Xi his post as chairman of the vital Central Military Commission effective immediately, further clarifying lines of authority. When Hu became party boss a decade ago, his predecessor—Jiang Zemin—clung to the job for another two years, raising questions about who was really in charge. In addition, reformers note that Xi is much more familiar with the outside world than his predecessors. He has called in many foreign capitals and has even made two visits to a family in Muscatine, Iowa. Under a false name, his daughter is a Harvard student.