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Society & Culture

As China’s New Team Steps In

Mar 06, 2013
  • Robert A. Kapp

    senior adviser to the China Program of the Carter Center

Within days, China will display a new team of top government leaders, and perhaps a new government organization chart.  Taken with the 18th Party Congress last fall, the NPC conclusion will mark the end of transition formalities at the apex of the Chinese political system. 

Americans’ interests with respect to China, as I will discuss below, tend to focus more on the ways that China seems to affect their lives and their communities, and less on the details of Chinese domestic political processes.  Americans’ often intense curiosity about China arises more from direct contacts, student and community exchanges, tourism, cultural programs, language study, etc., than from scripted political developments.  

Americans these days are also intensely concerned with domestic economic and political problems, such ­­as the dangerous dysfunction now gripping Washington, D.C. on vital issues from government finance to firearms policy. 

In China, foreign specialists often argue that foreign affairs occupy a secondary position on the Chinese leadership’s list of priorities.  A recent paper by Linda Jakobson, of Australia’s Lowy Institute, points out that China’s foreign policy is likely to remain, “reactive.”  Jakobson notes that top PRC foreign affairs specialists are likely to remain State Councilors, or members of the CCP Central Committee, but not members of the CCP Politburo or its Standing Committee.  With pressing domestic issues of economic restructuring, environmental protection, industrial modernization, social stability, income and wealth inequities, etc. front and center, we should expect that foreign affairs will not command the spotlight at the NPC.

Gigantic, choreographed public functions such as Party Congresses and five-yearly NPC sessions serve highly symbolic, ritual purposes within Chinese society.  They must be seen in broader context. 

The past year has seen much public discussion of the sustainability of China’s current mix of social, economic and political policies, and of the urgent need for reinvigorated “Reform,” variously defined.  Striking developments visible to the naked eye, in China and abroad, have intensified this discourse on China’s future. Recent examples include the political crisis surrounding the fall of Bo Xilai in the autumn of 2012; the electrifying revelations of misuse of public funds in the railway sector and the acquisition of vast private fortunes by families of senior leaders; the choking toxic smog affecting large areas of the country; and reports of worsening economic inequality in Chinese society.  The new government leadership team convenes against a backdrop of conspicuous challenges and genuine debate. 

Americans who focus intently on domestic developments in China will be watching the NPC for indications of whether, when and how China’s new government leaders will attempt to guide China along new paths to renewed progress.  The incoming team’s approach to economic “rebalancing,” the urbanization of several hundred million current rural dwellers, and other gargantuan tasks, if articulated in speeches and documents at the Congress and in the following weeks, will provide clues to their priorities, if not their capabilities.

At the very moment the NPC meets, though, foreign observers’ expectations are likely to remain muted. 

Personnel changes will be announced, but the foreign policy effects of organizational realignments, if any, will become clear only over time.  Only a dramatic change in the national defense budget is likely to have a galvanizing impact on foreign assessments. 

The Chinese political system in recent years displayed far less of the dramatic, top-down policy direction than was visible at key moments in 1980s, or even in the Zhu Rongji era of the 1990s.  Chinese commentators today wonder aloud whether the policy-making process has lost dynamism, overwhelmed by the status quo politics of powerful “interest groups” and the unbending imperatives of “stability maintenance.”  

Only time will tell.  China today, however, is undeniably at a different stage of development, internally and externally, from that of even ten years ago, let alone thirty years ago.  Responding to the challenges of tomorrow will place heavy demands on China’s new leaders and the vast apparatus they guide. 

Let me offer a few comments on China’s current relations with the United States, which developments at the NPC may indirectly affect. 

US-China relations are today broad, but uneven and frequently shallow.  In many respects, the relationship is not in robust health.  The past few years have not been kind to US-China ties.  

This is only partially a problem of “messengers.”  What each country’s public sees and hears from the media matters, of course.  In China, there is precious little warmth in state-controlled or state-watched media reportage on the U.S.  In the more open American media environment, critical and negative stories about China seem to dominate.  But blaming deterioration of popular sentiment on ill-intentioned media, or on shadowy conspiracies to thwart the other country’s legitimate aspirations, is a distraction, as is the facile attribution of rising American concerns about China to irrational feelings of jealousy and fear as China’s economic stature grows. 

Regrettably, Americans increasingly tend to see China through darkening lenses.  What China is becoming; how it will behave; how it will adjust to its own expanding power; these are real questions for concerned Americans now.  Such preoccupations run the risk of igniting old, ugly fears of China as a menace to the U.S. and the world. 

The current excitement over apparently widespread PRC cyber attacks on US government and corporate computer networks is especially corrosive, because it involves obscure technical issues cloaked in national security secrecy, invisible to ordinary citizens and vulnerable to rhetorical excess. 

A related question is whether, as China’s economic and military power continues to grow, it will continue to pursue the basic “Reform and Opening” pattern of the 1980s and 1990s of accommodation to globally respected commercial and technical norms, or whether a newly empowered China will insist that Chinese rules and standards prevail.  A current case in point, obscure to the general public, is the conflict over whether Chinese branches of international accounting firms must turn over to US regulatory authorities crucial working papers — required of any companies, including Chinese firms, preparing to list on U.S. exchanges – or whether those working papers, treated as “state secrets” in China, will be withheld from U.S. authorities.  Failure to reach a mutually acceptable resolution of this dispute will send a worrisome message to the U.S. about China’s vision of its international role more generally.  A satisfactory solution, on the other hand, would provide welcome reassurance that the two nations can still achieve the kinds amicable resolution of differences that stable relations require. 

Most Americans recognize that US-China relations are a two-way street, and that the United States must also attend urgently to its own self-improvement as it looks for a better relationship with China.  To use a familiar American colloquialism, “It takes two to tango.”  But our friends in China also should understand that the relationship with the United States requires continual, high priority Chinese attention to problems that, in recent years, have too often deepened rather than diminished.  In the aftermath of this month’s leadership transition, indications that improved bilateral relations are a high priority for both regimes will be eagerly welcomed. 

Dr. Robert A. Kapp is an independent consultant on Chinese affairs and US-China relations, and former president of the US-China Business Council.  He has visited China regularly since 1977.  Dr. Kapp is based in the State of Washington, U.S.A.  Views expressed in this article are solely his own.

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