By Avinash Godbole
The 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to select the next generation of leaders began on 8 November 2012 in Beijing. At the end of this Congress, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will unveil its new national leadership from 14 November. But policy change will be minimal and much will remain the same in the unique one party system in China. Nevertheless, due to circumstances prevailing inside and outside China, a lot is expected from the new leaders and thus this leadership change is a vastly important process for China and for the world.
One important aspect about the way the CCP functions is that China has moved from a system marked by a strong paramount leader who guided the country on the basis of ideology and a weak country to a system of a strong country and weak and fragmented leadership. At the same time, selections to the top echelons of the party are opaque, often based on networks and lineages. What this means is that in general there is resistance to changing the status quo as interest groups within the party do not want to harm the structures that have benefited them in the first place. The two factions within the present day CCP—the Princelings (sons of former top leaders) and others belonging to the Communist Youth League (CYL)—have jostled for party positions. Among the next set of leaders, the Princelings are likely to dominate due to backing from former President Jiang Zemin who has had a major influence in their selection. Jiang, himself a princeling, had always supported Xi’s nominations and his influence is seen as a much needed calming role by a senior after the ideological storm over Bo Xilai’s ouster.
Introducing Xi and Li
China’s current Vice President, Xi Jinping, will take over the position of the Secretary General of the CCP from Hu Jintao at the end of the Party Congress and will become President sometime in March 2013. Xi will be leading a conservative Politburo Standing Committee. Xi Jinping is the son of Xi Zhongxun, who was Vice Premier under Mao and was purged during the Cultural Revolution. While Xi belongs to the princelings faction, unlike many others from this group, Xi himself has had a relatively long tenure in rural China when he began his political career in a small village named Liangjiahe in Shaanxi province. Following this, he has had an interesting career. His national image as being clean and tough on corruption is based on his tenure in Shanghai where he was appointed after a major financial fraud by a party official. His earlier tenures as senior official in Zhejiang and Fujian means that he has closely dealt with Taiwanese business and official interests. He is expected to push for more integration with Taiwan leading to unification. His closer ties to the military have been viewed as a reason for the possible rise in stature of the PLA in decision-making. However, from time to time, he might also have to use his closeness to restrain the PLA in order to reassure smaller neighbours. Xi’s last major assignment as a national leader before his elevation as future president was confirmed with the success of the Beijing Olympics where he was in-charge of overall preparations. In the last two years, Xi has visited 50 countries in order to increase his outreach, an area in which he had lacked experience. Many of these have been developing countries with which China has booming trade relations.
Li Keqiang, current Vice-Premier, is likely to become Premier in March 2013. Like Xi, Li’s career also began with rural education in Fengyang County of Anhui province. He studied Law and acquired a PhD from Peking University where he joined the Communist Youth League (CYL). He rose in the CYL hierarchy like Hu Jintao and later joined the CCP. He became the Governor and Party Secretary in Henan and is credited for the economic transformation of the province. He is a known to be a tough economic administrator, coordinator and organiser.
Generational Change and the Quantum Leap
The future is not going to be easy for the Xi-Li leadership. Their tasks are amply clear and these are not at all easy; they have to maintain the pace of economic growth, encourage domestic consumption and make growth more sustainable, all at the same time. China’s stimulus packages in terms of investments in infrastructure after the meltdown of 2008-09 temporarily boosted the economy but have not been able to sustain the momentum in the last couple of years. Quarterly growth has come below 7.5 per cent and is likely to stagnate there as domestic demand has also slowed down. The housing bubble is just one example of the misconceived stimulus package. Rebalancing would involve tough political decisions that would not be easy for the new leaders. At the same time, reducing regional and income inequalities remain a prime concern. How the new leadership manages to balance the two remains to be seen. Corruption, property and rule of law are important points of debate in China. Cases like the one involving Gu Kailai have demonstrated the serious misuse of power for profiteering.1 Land grabbing and development without adequate compensation have led to protests by the masses. China needs a clearer legal system to deter the misuse of power; otherwise mass-incidents would continue to grow in numbers and intensity.
The new leadership will be under immense pressure to walk the talk and deliver on these issues. China is clearly running out of time as far as its relations with the ethnic minorities are concerned. Tibet is an ideological challenge whereas Xinjiang struggles with the question of identity and religious space. These issues have to be taken to a conclusion by the Xi-Li generation. Importantly, when the last power transition happened, information was scarce and managed and propaganda abundant whereas in the China of 2012 there is Weibo and China has entered an era where “everybody has a microphone”.2
China’s international relations are also in an important and delicate state. There are no easy solutions to China’s territorial disputes in the East and South China seas. China has to control its nationalism and jingoism in its dialogue with the smaller neighbours, even as its military capacity and reach continue to rise. Otherwise it is an invitation for the reinvigoration of the US role in the region which is already underway with the declaration of the pivot strategy. At the same time, Barack Obama’s re-election should reassure the Chinese leadership as Obama is preferable to the hardliner Romney.
Thus, what the new Chinese leaders need to do is amply clear; it remains to be seen whether or not they are actually able to do it. As far as India is concerned, India-China relations will largely continue to proceed on cautious lines. An early visit of Xi Jinping to India after he assumes the Presidency would send the right signals in this regard. At the same time, India-China bilateral ties will also depend on how the second Obama Administration approaches the two countries and the extent to which China under the Xi-Li leadership feels assured of its position in the international order.
1. However, recent attempts at portraying Neil Haywood as a spy might well be an attempt towards restoring Bo Xilai and reducing the prison term of Gu Kailai.
2. One only has to look at how Chinese netizens approached the recent Presidential Elections in the US, with appreciation and enthusiasm expressed over it. Don Weinland for China Digital Times (2010), Yu Jianrong (于建嵘): “Everyone Has a Microphone”, Accessed 5 November 2012, at http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2010/12/yu-jianrong-%E4%BA%8E%E5%BB%BA%E5%B5%98-everyone-has-a-microphone/
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/ChangeofGuardinChina_AvinashGodbole_121112