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.
Finally, the party seemed to downgrade the internal-security job somewhat; its new Politburo overseer did not gain standing committee status. China spends some $110 billion yearly on censorship, policing dissidents and other domestic controls, more than on external defense.
Bumpy Road Ahead
It was all thin gruel for those who want to see decisive reforms introduced quickly. Party leaders seemed to favor the status quo over change, and their personnel moves were conservative. In fact, trimming the standing committee allowed them to omit two candidates widely considered as the most reform-minded, while the new appointee considered best qualified to oversee economic changes has other duties. Moreover, another appointee—party propaganda chief Liu Yunshan—is a hardliner expected to continue the crackdown on social media that ordinary citizens use to publicize complaints about party policies and practices. (More than 500 million Chinese use local versions of Facebook and Twitter.) There’ll be no Arab Spring in China if the Politburo has a say.
Yet the problems are substantial and growing worse. The ruling system is corrupt from top to bottom, with payoffs often required for everything from basic services to giant contracts. Unabashed favoritism can enrich those with the right connections. A New York Times investigation found that the extended family of outgoing Premier Wen, the most publicly outspoken foe of bribery and nepotism, has investments worth a staggering $2.7 billion. A similar Bloomberg study of Xi Jinping’s family discovered holdings of $376 million, plus an indirect interest worth $200 million in a rare earths company. Last week shares in a company called Xinyi Glass rose sharply only because its chairman’s son is married to the daughter of a new standing-committee member; investors assumed that automatically puts Xinyi Glass in line for lucrative new contracts.
Meantime, there are from 150,000 to 200,000 group protests yearly by citizens—“mass incidents” in party jargon—who think local officials have done them wrong, such as by seizing farmland for use by wealthy developers who have paid the necessary bribes. This unrest comes as the overall economy is slowing down significantly. Analysts believe China must, among other things, do more to promote consumption over investment, curb bank loans to pampered state-owned enterprises and give depositors better returns. There are also rising worries about protectionism and theft of intellectual property; China’s rules against such things too often aren’t enforced.
Resentment against “princelings”—children of past revolutionary leaders—is mounting; armed with a sense of entitlement, they often hold lucrative posts in the party, government and business even though their families often are rivals for influence. Four members of the new standing committee, including Xi, qualify.
Finally, there is foreign policy. Increasingly nationalistic China and Japan are creeping toward violence over ownership of rocky isles they both claim, even as China also claims to own others in the faraway South China Sea despite rival assertions from nations like the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei. Meanwhile, the Chinese and American military see each other as potential aggressors, raising the need for political resolution. Along with that, the world’s two largest economies have many simmering trade disputes to settle. Such matters will sorely test the flexibility and ingenuity of the new regime.
Don’t Lose the Next Decade
Perhaps Xi and his colleagues, who represent rival patronage alliances, have secret plans for dealing with such issues despite appearances to the contrary. But initial indications can be misleading. When Jiang Zemin gained office following the 1989 Tiananmen violence, many considered him a buffoon who wouldn’t last long. (At a state dinner in London, he once thanked the queen by singing to her, followed by another song and then another, as guests rolled their eyes.) Yet he remains, at age 86 and not long out of a hospital bed, a skilled and powerful political operator; President Xi and four other standing-committee members come from his circle, eclipsing the rival entourage of Hu Jintao which can claim only two. A few years ago, a princeling who knows Hu insisted to this writer that “you’ll be surprised” by the many reforms he will introduce. Yet many Chinese call his tenure a “lost decade” in which corruption, favoritism and other ills multiplied.