Power Transitions with Chinese Characteristics

November 15, 2012 Topic: AutocracySociety Region: China

Power Transitions with Chinese Characteristics

The 18th Party Congress was a counterpoint to America's own leadership transition.


I’m sure that many people in China and the United States were thrilled to hear Hu Jintao proclaim the other night, “I now announce that the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress has come to a victorious conclusion.” Does this mean that our two countries can once again get down to brass tacks?

The United States has endured an interminable election season, and now the great mystery that was China’s once-a-decade leadership transition also has been solved. China-watchers can finally stop their endless ruminating about who would make it to the highest echelons of power in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), otherwise known as the Politburo Standing Committee.

The number one position, Hu Jintao’s replacement, has gone to Xi Jinping, a move that has widely been expected for over a year. The number two spot has gone to Li Keqiang, who will take over for outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao. The rest of the line-up includes Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli. For those who have been playing the numbers game, you will notice that the Standing Committee has been reduced from nine members to seven—which has also been widely speculated for months.

One piece of good news about this transition is that Hu Jintao also stepped down as chairman of the Central Military Commission. This decision was a surprise to many analysts who thought that he might hold on to his position as military chief for a while, as his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, did before him. But with this move, Hu Jintao has guaranteed that this was the first clean transfer of power the CCP has seen in two decades. This is no small feat. It may also lessen some of the political infighting and factional rivalries that might have plagued the incoming and outgoing Party leadership should he have remained as chairman—though just some.

What is much less positive, at least for those who had been hoping that this new fifth generation leadership might be more reform-minded, is the absence of two individuals whose names were also on the shortlist of would-be Standing Committee members, Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang. This is not necessarily surprising, but it is disappointing. Though “reform” is sometimes considered a dirty word in China, it would behoove Xi and the fifth generation leadership to pay attention to public attitudes: a recently released Global Times survey suggested that “81.4 percent of respondents said they support political reform in China and 69.7 percent of the respondents said they felt that gradual reform is good for the country.” The CCP cannot be too rigid on the issues of political and economic reform or it will risk losing the support of the people.

Looking back on some aspects of the 18th Party Congress, it's clear that the CCP made sure it was tightly scripted to avoid any unwanted disruptions. During the opening day on November 8, several security guards stationed inside the Great Hall of the People were armed with fire extinguishers, and outside the hall in Tiananmen Square, firefighters were positioned to put out the flames should anyone attempt to immolate themselves in the iconic square. Unfortunately, this did not stop several young Tibetans from setting fire to themselves last week in China’s western Qinghai province to protest against what many Tibetans believe is the CCP’s perpetration of “cultural genocide.”

There were also many reports that in Beijing’s taxis, the handles used to roll down rear seat windows had been removed. Allegedly this was part of the government’s attempt to prevent any unwanted leaflets from being distributed from the backseat. The CCP was desperate to try to tamp down anything that even hinted at fomenting instability during this delicate power transition. This also meant that it was difficult to buy items such as kitchen knives and screwdrivers during the transition. "I looked everywhere for a fruit knife, but I failed. So I asked the clerk. He said, 'All knives are off the shelf before the 18th Party Congress.'"

For those watching the events on TV, absent was what we in the United States have grown accustomed to—the tearful family moment and balloon drop. Though Xi Jinping is now one of the most powerful and important leaders in the world, his wife and daughter were not showcased like Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama. Instead viewers of the festivities were greeted with a turgid parade of dark-suited men with red ties. They all looked tense to varying degrees, save for Xi Jinping whose confidence and relaxed nature have often been juxtaposed with Hu Jintao’s uptight stiffness.

There was also the age-old game of patriotic one-upmanship. Americans are certainly inured to this sort of sycophantic pandering. But in China it takes on a flavor all its own. For example, Beijing TV showed a video of Ju Xiaolin, who penned a poem titled “Getting New Hope” and illustrated it with a drawing of a magnifying glass with a heart-shaped frame. This tribute came after hearing Hu Jintao’s 100-minute, 64-page keynote speech titled, “Firmly March on the Path of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and Strive to Complete the Building of a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects.”

And of course it goes without saying that there was no concession speech from the “loser,” since there are no opposition candidates under single-party rule.

People have a short attention span, and just as quickly as the new leaders were announced, some are now looking ten years out, discussing China’s 6th generation leaders and who might have a horse in the race—in 2022. However, during the present leadership transition, the United States and China should keep in mind that no matter who is in the driver’s seat (or seats, as the case may be), there is still reason for concern: on both sides, the two countries lack political space—and perhaps political will—to find solutions to the challenges that face the U.S.-China relationship.

Scholars and China analysts have begun to discuss the idea of the “new normal” in the U.S.-China relationship, which implies that we may be entering into a new era in the bilateral relationship. China is facing greater instability today than it has in many years, which is making its actions—both foreign and domestic—more difficult to predict. Fortunately, the United States has another decade to develop an effective working relationship with China’s new leaders.

Let’s hope that’s enough time.

A. Greer Meisels is associate director and research fellow, China and the Pacific, at the Center for the National Interest.