In President Hu Jintao’s visit, China-watchers see an opportunity to mend ties with Washington after a turbulent year in which the two countries clashed over maritime disputes in the region in addition to disagreements over perennial bugbears such as North Korea and Iran. The trip is probably about that: improving diplomatic relations between the two countries. But better diplomatic relations won't win the day by enhancing cooperation on issues that divide the two countries. President Hu's first duty is to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and not China’s government. It is an important distinction because the Chinese leader does not have the authority to make the hard decisions that Obama will be pressing him to make—meaning that doing business with China will be a lot more chaotic and unpredictable than the American president is bargaining for.
It comes down to “democracy” Chinese style. The rise of diverse and powerful social, economic and military entities has occurred within an authoritarian structure. This means that while the country doesn't hold multiparty elections, it does have surprisingly vigorous intra-Party debates. But as the head of the CCP, the appearance of a harmonious Party is far more important than the exercise of leadership. This has been the case since the Tiananmen protests in 1989, when CCP disunity in the face of countrywide turmoil almost brought the regime down.
That Beijing seeks to make decisions by “consensus” is not unique to China. Besides, Chinese decision making has long been a “black box” within which manifold actors and interests now exert influence. But the problem is that the omnipresent CCP now consists of some 80 million members representing all facets of power in modern China: not just the leaders in Beijing but the powerful People's Liberation Army (PLA), the enormous state-owned champions such as Sinopec and China National Petroleum, influential figures within key ministries such as Commerce, State Security, and Public Security, and provincial leaders who sometimes run their territories like fiefdoms. All are CCP members and the influential hold official or semiformal positions within China's vast labyrinth of committees, subcommittees and ad hoc decision-making bodies. For an insecure regime in which the appearance of harmony is all-important, President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao lack the basic authority and legitimacy to make decisions that affect the interests of the disparate factions and entities within the CCP.
This paralysis was most evident in the fiasco of the Copenhagen climate change summit in December, 2009. The fiasco was not just President Obama's inability to secure a deal but on the Chinese side as well. When President Obama left Beijing a month before, he did so under the impression that President Hu was willing to do a deal at the summit. But the fact that President Hu subsequently stonewalled any agreement at Copenhagen is more a statement about the institutional incapacity of any Chinese leader to make big decisions than it is about Beijing's treachery.
Leading up to the climate talks, key figures from the Ministry of Commerce—in league with some of the country's most formidable state-owned enterprises—were adamant that China not commit to any targets. The Ministry of Public Security, as well as influential generals within the People's Armed Police, would brook no mention of international monitoring commissions roaming throughout China to monitor carbon emissions. Provincial leaders declared that they could not implement or monitor any agreement. By the time it came to the climate negotiations, it was impossible for President Hu to sign on to any binding agreement.
It is similar story to issues such as China's currency policy. When Chinese leaders quietly looked into significantly revising the yuan upwards against the greenback in March 2010, influential officials within the Ministry of Commerce and formidable local CCP leaders from the export powerhouse of Guangdong province stood firmly against it, citing stress-test results. Likewise, any Chinese cooperation on sanctions against Iran will have to pass muster with the PLA and Chinese state-owned giants investing in the Iranian oil industry.
All governments—democratic or authoritarian—need to balance the interests of different groups when making decisions. The difference is that CCP decision-making mechanisms do not always give the leader the final say. When you have such a vast semiformal network of influence and interests under the one political organization, getting the Chinese president to sign on the dotted line and commit to any agreement is extremely difficult.
It is noteworthy that successful instances of formalized U.S.-China cooperation have more to do with agreement about processes than issues themselves. The U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue (which has become the Strategic and Economic Dialogue) is a perfect example. Few factions and entities within the CCP network would disagree with the initiative.
President Obama needs to recognize that the CCP is a many-headed dragon and the Chinese leader is not steering the beast but only holding the reins. As far as the secretary-general of the CCP is concerned, preventing the multiple heads of the dragon from pulling the regime apart—not an era of cooperation with America—is his primary task.