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China’s Great Leadership Transition

Paper No. 5262                                                Dated 25-Oct-2012

By Bhaskar Roy

The world is waiting for November 08 when the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (hereafter refered to as Party) will commence in Beijing. This will see the major once in ten years leadership change in most levels of the Party. Around 70 percent of the existing leaders at levels starting from the Politburo Standing Committee down to the Central Committee of the Party will exit. New leaders will replace them although the new entrants have been closely working with the outgoing leaders for at least the last five years.  

The Party suffered a major jolt in March this year with Chongqing scandal. Bo Xilai, Politburo member and chief of Chongqing Party apparatus, his wife Gu Kailai and the Police Chief Wang Lijun were found involved in multiple scandals including the murder of an English businessman Neil Heywood, also business partner of Gu Kailai. The Police Chief and Ms. Gu have been sentenced, and Bo’s trial is on.

The case is very complicated with many strings as most Chinese things are. The Party has launched a campaign to tarnish Bo’s image as corrupt, womanizer, power hungry among other things. Bo was no ordinary Chinese leader. He was the son of Bo Yibo, one of the revolutionaries who fought alongside Mao Zedong and worked with Deng Xiaoping. He was also known one of Communist China’s “Eight Immortals”. This made Bo Xilai an important ‘Princeling’ (progenies of senior leaders). He was almost certain to be promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee  (PBSC).

Bo Xilai’s fall was not for his human faults, but  political. In Chongqing, he started pushing the leftist line, revived some parts of Cultural Revolution culture and in private conversation with some close friends including from People’s Liberation Army (PLA), denied the current leadership and their policies. He became the flag bearer of leftist in the middle and lower ranks of the Party and leftist intellectuals.

Initially, he was supported by erstwhile Party Chief Jiang Zemin and Vice President Xi Jinping, who is slated to take over from Hu Jintao at Congress.

Bo’s mistake was too big to be tolerated. His supporters also turned against him. China just cannot return to the Cultural Revolution ideology and politics. Premier Wen Jiabao, who is also to retire, has publicly warned that without political reform economic reform will collapse, and the country may witness another Cultural Revolution.

After the 1989 students uprising, any and all political reforms came to a stop. Later that year, Deng Xiaoping told a visiting foreign dignitary that the USA took advantage of the new liberal atmosphere in China and tried to bring the Party down and introduce Western style of democracy. But Deng led economic liberalization under the Party control through his “reform and opening up” policy, which helped China to reach the No. 2 economic status in the world.

This gave the leftist space to grow. The strongest point of the Chinese people is nationalism, pride in the country. Colonial oppression in history has been made a living nightmare. The leftists are concerned that too much opening up may see a repeat of colonialism in China. Bo Xilai and his fellow believers including PLA officers like Maj. Gen. Liu were of the view that the top leaders were succumbing to western pressure.

The Bo Xilai incident and its connected political ideological developments created a tense atmosphere in China. China is in a critical situation and cannot afford a leftist movement. Yet, the fear of leftist backlash prevented even minimum political structural reform. Last two years saw stepped up repression of  pro-democracy activists like Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and renowned artist Ai Weiwei. This year saw the social security budget at $105 billion cross even the declared military budget. This was for a China which indicated more tolerance for human rights. China is no ordinary country. The ‘Central Kingdom’ epithet is taken seriously.

Communism was espoused for a cause. Below the skin, Confucian tradition remains alive.  This  is  the  reason that  the  demand  from the  people  is  a  clean government which serves the people and look after their interest – benevolent dictatorship.

Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, three characters responsible for what China is today, always looked at the USA as the country to work with despite ideological and political difference. Perhaps the USA, fighting communism, missed an opportunity. Moscow and Mao never trusted each other.

At the moment China is in the middle of a whirlpool, and it cannot hide or avoid any longer. Corruption in every form, in every area and at every level is the main drum-beat of the people. Yet, corruption has gone so deep that every leader is involved directly or indirectly. The upcoming leadership will face rising social unrest, an economic slowdown and criticism from the educated young lot over the very active internet. The Party is no longer trusted to be on the side of the people. It is viewed as a cosy club of corrupt exploiters. Can the next Party General Secretary Xi Jinping push stalled reforms and, as President, stabilize relations with its neighbors?

There is always some tough debacle before every party congress, but they seem to be unusually sharp and concerned.  Suggestions for Xi Jinping are pouring in  from  friends, important official think tanks and media outlets.  “Strategy and Reform’ one of the important think tanks that has been busy  throughout the year offering suggestions recently said that “The next decade might be the last opportunity for actively pursuing reform, and we should treasure this last chance”.  It went on to say China was facing a perilous jump, one that it can neither hide from or avoid.

The Central Party School theoretical journal Qiushi (Seeking Truth) has urged the Party to waste no time and push ahead with reform and openness (transparency), as stagnation and roll back could be disastrous.

The Asia Times has revealed that since as early as 2008 Vice President Xi Jinping had indicated that the progress of the Party should be on  rule by law.  China has some excellent laws in  the statute books,  but they remain there.  Judgments are delivered mainly on political considerations and not by law.  Even lawyers appearing for certain people especially those charged with political crimes like calling for democracy, are banned. Basic freedom is denied to the people and demand for any freedom is a crime.  The Party thinks for the people and people are expected to perform like robots.

The conservatives or leftist status quoists still refuse to admit that the world has moved on.  China’s success is because of risks taken by the leaders in economic restructuring. But they could not take political restructuring to match the economic part.

Following the end of the Mao-era, Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues arrived at the consensus that there will be no further “class struggle” and “continuous revolution”.  Therefore, why is Xi Jinxing and his colleagues and growing number open thinkers are still hesitant to fully discard revolution and embrace rule by law?

In his July 23, 2012 speech Hu Jintao emphasized on ‘scientific development’ as the key theme, and expediting the transformation of the economic development model as the ‘main line’.  He spelt out obstacles that must be broken down.  But he stopped shy of calling for political reform.  This is the problem.

The Party has 80 million members. And Party members are privileged whether in jobs, promotions, bank loans and what have you.  This makes a huge body of vested interest that would lose power, influence and money if there is political reform.  These people are everywhere, and can bring down the top leaders if their privileges are taken away. The new leadership that takes over after the 18th party congress may introduce some change, but not enough. China is not ready for a revolutionary change.  There are too many challenges.

Only two leaders from the existing PBSC will remain for the next 10 years.  They are Xi Jinping, as Party General Secretary  and  Li Keqiang as Premier.   Since China does not have a multiparty system, the differences in thinking have been reflected through factions.   Factional fights can be quite ferocious.  In Mao’s days leaders used to purged from the Party, jailed or even disappeared.  From that point of view current power struggles are more civil.  The Bo Xilai case was an exception.  He transgressed all political red lines and committed the cardinal sin of  trying to influence the army.   Even then, leftist supporters are calling for a reversal of the decisions on Bo.

The current struggle for power is between Communist Youth League (CYL) faction and the so-called princeling faction.  Hu Jintao and Li Keqiang belong to the Youth League faction, where Xi Jinping is from the princelings backed by former Party Secretary General and Shanghai faction leader Jiang Zemin.

The Youth League faction is more cohesive having worked with each other as they moved up the ladder.  They are more involved in the upliftment of the backward regions.  Hu Jintao’s Scientific Development theory envisages even development and reduction of income gap, something which can become acute and threatens social disturbances.  When he came to power in 2002 replacing Jiang as the Party Chief, he scuttled some of the glamorous projects conceived by Jiang in Shanghai like the Disneyland project.

Jiang and Hu have been on opposite sides in major policy issues.  Jiang supported coastal area development first and creating structure and infrastructure that would  awe the world.  Hu was outmanoured  by Jiang on the choice of the next Party Chief and president.  Hu pushed for fellow Youth League compatriot Li Keqiang, but Jiang got Xi Jinping selected.  In the last one year both Jiang and Hu have seen their strengths  alternating, but Hu appears weaker at the moment.

The princelings, however, are not really a faction by themselves.  The only common thing that they have is that as children of revolutionaries who sacrificed their all for the country, they should also have their place in leading the country.  Xi Jinping will be the first princeling to head the party and the country. But there are princelings who have also grown up in the Youth League.

Li Yuanchao, Politburo member and head of the Party’s Organization Department, is a princeling and a Youth League product.  He is a leading candidate for the PBSC. Ms Liu Yandong, politburo member and state councilor, is also a princeling and Youth League product.  She has excellent relations with all sides and could be the first female to enter the PBSC.

China is such an opaque country that one can at best make informed guess work.  It is likely that the current 9-member PBSC may be reduced to a 7-member one.  The PBSC was expanded to 9-memeber at the 16th Party Congress in 2002 to accommodate protégés of outgoing Party Chief Jiang Zemin.  A 7-member PBSC may make it easier to take decisions.

Names of possible new members have been circulating.  One, apart from the two names mentioned above, is Zhang Dejiang, Politburo member, Vice Premier, and currently Party Secretary of Chongqing to repair the damage done by Bo Xilai.  He is princeling, efficient, but not necessarily a liberal.

Top bosses of security establishment may not find a place in the PBSC.  They have received a lot of flak.

There could be new challenges in policy making, however.  Octogenarian Jiang Zemin has signaled he is not willing to stay in the background.  He has been very active recently including in personnel and policy affairs.  Hu Jintao is unlikely to withdraw into retirement.  There  will be two retired party chiefs, and a new party chief and a new premier who have to deal with them.  Involvement of retired leaders in policy has never been good, especially when there is a crisis.  They come with their old political and ideological baggage.

Deng Xiaoping dissolved the Central Advisory Commission (CMC), repository for party elders, after the Tiananmen Square incident.  Without them sitting on extended politburo meetings to deal with the students uprising, the matter could have been dealt with better.  The new trend with Jiang Zemin pushing  it is unlikely to have a salutary effect.

Note:  The writer can be contacted at e-mail grouchohart@yahoo.com

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