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What We Know About China’s Leadership Change

Kerry Brown
October 10, 2012
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 After months of uncertainty, we now know the date of the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress. The Congress will be convened on 8th November. On that date, going from past precedent since 1977, a Central Committee will be elected of around 350 full and alternate members, from whom a Politburo of about 25 will be selected. By a process about which no one seems that clear, from this elite of elites a further group of from seven to nine, and perhaps even eleven, will be promoted to the summit of decision making and influence in modern China – the Standing Committee. By around the middle of November, the speculation will all be over, and people inside and outside the county will finally know who the leadership team are that are going to be in charge of the People’s Republic for the next five, and very possible ten, years.

 One of the most remarkable aspects of this leadership transition – what is known as the change from fourth generation leaders under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, to younger fifth generation leaders – is that the very thing we would see most fiercely debated in electoral political systems in the West - policy differences - almost makes no appearance in this process. Having one party have a monopoly on power gives the luxury of making such a transition look like mere personnel change rather than involving any real choices of policy. The one elite politician who dared to broach some policy issues in the lead up to this process, Bo Xilai, was felled for corruption earlier in the year. The remaining leaders have barely breathed a word of what the world might look like under their leadership in policy terms in one or two years time from now.

 This is because the Party corporately wishes to reassure its core constituencies domestically, and the outside world, that everything is directed by a collective leadership, that they will preserve policy stability and continuity, and that there are no deep divisions within the Party about how to approach policy issues. This is, of course, nonsense. Deep divisions exist, as they do everywhere else, about the role of social welfare, about the extent of the state in its involvement in the economy, and about the limits of introducing the rule of law. These issues are not taboo within intellectual and official communities in China. We can even say that the current Politburo is largely conservative in its approach to these key areas. With the exception of Wen Jiabao, his colleagues have mostly supported actions and policies which support the state sector and are deeply wary of any legal or political reforms. They are status quo men. And with a booming economy in the last decade, nothing significant has come to shift them from that position.

 The new leadership coming in (70 percent of the elite at the Central Committee need to retire in November) have been highly trained for their new roles. Most of them have served as Party Secretaries running provinces with economies the size of most other countries. The likeliest replacement for Hu Jintao as Party boss, Xi Jinping, typifies this, with a three-decade career running entities from village level governments up to provinces the size of Fujian and Zhejiang. As administrators, the new leaders have track records that prove they can deal competently with very complex governance and economic issues. What is less well known is how they are going to behave as international statesmen, and as people who have to give political direction nationally to a country which is now almost certain to enter a period where the key challenges are not about pumping out GDP growth (though that remains important) but addressing some of the huge socio-political issues China currently faces – issues of inequality, social balance, lack of welfare systems, environmental sustainability, and energy and food security. They will be leading a country that is undergoing the fastest and largest process of urbanization ever experienced by any society, but which is trying to operate under a system of governance largely borrowed from the Soviet Union in the mid 20th century. For them, therefore, in order to become a middle income level country by 2020, the government’s stated objective, it’s not just about the economic indicators from now on, but the far more complex issues of political changes that can enable this process to happen without massive conflict and imbalance in society that might lead to instability.

 From what we know of the new generation of leaders in China, their provincial records are relatively liberal. They are highly pragmatic. They don’t question the right of the Party to have a monopoly on power. But they do know that the dynamics of their society are changing in ways which are going to be very challenging and hard to predict, and that new modes of governance need to be used. The old ways of step-by-step change, of policy innovation locally and then, if and when it works, nationally, might not work when changes are needed very quickly. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have given their successors one big asset – a good economy. But in many of the key areas of socio-political reform, they have merely stalled, delayed, and in some areas regressed. This leadership will have to show political guts and imagination to face these problems, with a skeptical public and an international order that is suspicious of what their country’s final aspirations might be. We know much about what these leaders think on the economy, and a little on their country’s future political shape. The one thing that the Western system of leadership change and that in China have in common is that for both, the one thing we never know about leaders is how they are going to behave once they are in power. In China, from middle November, we are about to find out.

Kerry Brown, PhD is the Executive Director of the China Studies Centre and a Professor of Chinese Politics at the University of Sydney.

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