In a blog piece I posted in August 2012 on the trial of Bo Xilai’s wife Gu Kailai, I noted that “there is something seriously wrong with the Party but chances are that it may still be able to muddle through the crisis and claim business as usual in the upcoming 18th Party Congress.” Thanks to the mobilization of 1.4 million security personnel, the Party Congress ended uneventfully with a new lineup of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). Seven men became officially the most powerful people in China: Xi Jinping (CCP General Secretary and chairman of Central Military Commission, president-to-be), Li Keqiang (premier-to-be), Zhang Dejiang (soon-to-be head of the legislative branch), Yu Zhengsheng (soon-to-be head of the CPPCC, Chinese equivalent of the Upper House), Liu Yunshan (the propaganda and ideological chief), Wang Qishan (head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection), and Zhang Gaoli (soon-to-be Executive Vice Premier).
This new lineup speaks to the lack of political development in China. Despite the fadeaway of revolutionary leaders and more than three decades of post-Mao state rebuilding, the game of political succession is still dominated by behind-the-scene “informal politics,” with heavy meddling by party elders who have no formal positions. As a result, the Party Congress became President Hu Jintao’s political Waterloo: among his favored candidates, only Li Keqiang gained a PBSC seat as anticipated, while reform-minded leaders such as Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao were excluded. By contrast, former President Jiang Zemin emerged as the clear winner with at least three of his protégés (Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, and Zhang Gaoli) granted seats in the PBSC. The Party Congress also witnessed the rise of the so-called “princelings,” or descendants of prominent and influential senior party officials: at least three PBSC members (Xi Jinping, Yu Zhengsheng, and Wang Qishan) are classified as belonging to this group. The bottom line of princelings, according to a Beijing-based political commentator, is to “advocate maintaining one-party dictatorship.” As Chen Yun, a veteran communist leader allegedly said, “our own children are more (politically) reliable.” The absence of bona fide reformers and the rise of red aristocracy at the power apex – as I indicated in another blog piece posted prior to the Congress – “ultimately might not bode well for the prospect of political reform in China.” My colleague Liz Economy was more straightforward, “It didn’t have to be that way, but the Party elders elected to preserve their legacy at the expense of opening the door to real change.”
That said, top leaders are no longer the sole driver of political change in China. A civil society facilitated by Weibo is increasingly having its voices heard and its actions felt in the political process. This new “People Power” is potent enough to remove corrupt officials and force the governments to modify unpopular policies. Furthermore, not all PBSC members are resistant to meaningful reforms. In a sign of change, Li Keqiang said recently that reform was “China’s biggest dividend.” Charged with tackling corruption within the Party, Wang Qishan has a reputation of being an economic reformer and a problem solver. There are also some cautious reformers on the economic front, including Xi Jinping, Yu Zhengsheng, and Zhang Gaoli, who might become allies of Li and Wang in promoting people’s wellbeing, rooting out corruption and establishing the “intra-party democracy.” But they are unlikely to have a common interest in pursuing rule by law and real democracy. Indeed, until very recently Xi was still emphasizing the importance of studying classic (or perhaps, archaic) works of Marxism-Leninism and praising that Karl Marx’s Capital “shines forth eternally.”
However, even these so-called reformers will continue to be constrained by (more?) retired party elders and conservative PBSC members. But this is not the reformers’ worst nightmare. The greatest danger is the special interests that hijack China’s reform process. State-owned enterprises in monopoly industries (e.g., banking, power, oil, tobacco, and telecommunication), for example, use their influence to shield market competition and make huge profits. They not only contribute to the omnipresent corruption but also distort the market and widen income inequality in China. Repeated calls to reform these monstrous giants have been stonewalled, in part because some governmental leaders, who have family members involved in the business activities, do not want to see their own interests undermined by the reform.
If powerful, vested interests are allowed to hijack economic reform, sooner or later the top leaders may face the tough choice of passing the buck to the next generation of leaders (“jigu chuanhua”) or implementing the political reform to circumscribe the resistance. The former will only exacerbate the mounting challenges and is a recipe for ultimate social and political breakdown. Yet, the latter may intensify factionalism at the top, which is made more likely as no single political leader is fully in control. The intensified factionalist politics may further erode the power and legitimacy of the party-state (we already saw this in the Bo Xilai scandal). In absence of a functioning state apparatus, leaders are unable to push reform forward. This in turn may worsen the economic situation and, given that the regime legitimacy depends on delivering robust economic growth, trigger a major political crisis. Sensing the game might end soon, government officials and state managers may rush to “steal the state” (grabbing everything that is fungible). The state may fail as a result of the organizational equivalent of a colossal bank run. This scenario was described and analyzed in Steven Solnick’s book Stealing the State: Control and Collapse in Soviet Institutions. It is definitely not a slam dunk play for China. But when it does happen, don’t be surprised. This is – to borrow a metaphor in my research field – the way social epidemics work.
Yanzhong Huang is a Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations and associate professor at the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University in New Jersey.