The Challenges for China’s New Leadership

The Outlook for China’s Leadership


The National Congress of the Communist Party of China will start in Beijing on November 8, 2012. Due to term and age limit restrictions, much of the current party leadership, including Paramount Leader Hu Jintao, will be replaced. Journalist Tomisaka Satoshi looks at the current state of the party’s power structure and analyzes the near-term outlook.

The Eighteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which will start on November 8, is due to bring a major, once-in-a-decade change in the top leadership team, but as of this writing, all that seems certain is that Vice President Xi Jinping will assume the top post of CPC general secretary. The selections for many other senior posts are still pending—they were presumably settled at the meetings in Beidaihe this summer, but they have yet to be announced. (Beidaihe is well known as the location of a summer retreat for the leaders and senior members of the CPC, who hold meetings there annually.) I admit I feel rather nervous penning an essay about the structure of power in China at this point in time. But just because we do not know the names of all the members of the new leadership team, that does not mean it is impossible for us to discuss the country’s power structure.

The Legacy of Deng Xiaoping

In fact, today’s China does not seem to be under the sway of a strong leader or leadership team; instead, it seems to be following the vaguely defined will of the CPC. This consists of the party values that have taken shape since Deng Xiaoping came out with his policy of reform and liberalization in 1978. China’s contemporary leaders are rather like the management of a company that has lost its autocratic founder, attempting to deal with the current situation while trying to imagine what the founder would have done under the same circumstances.

However, at least with respect to the selection of party leaders, Deng’s legacy instructions will cease to be operative following the upcoming party congress. Since Deng stepped down, China has had no more dominating leaders like him. The age of individuals fighting their way to the top in the CPC ended, and instead leaders came to be selected collectively. But the authority wielded by the two top leaders since Deng’s time—Jiang Zemin (CPC general secretary 1989–2002; president 1993–2003) and incumbent Hu Jintao—did not emerge through the functioning of this official selection system. Jiang, needless to say, derived his power from his position as Deng’s designated heir. And even Hu owed his rise to the fact that Deng tapped him as a future leader at an early stage. But at this year’s congress, a decade and a half after Deng’s death in 1997, the party will finally be picking a leader by itself, without reference to Deng’s will.

To digress briefly, I take exception to the interpretation advanced by many in Japan that the “Shanghai clique” of Jiang Zemin is vying with the “Youth League faction” of Hu Jintao. The facts fail to support this, and the people lumped together as members of the Shanghai clique do not necessarily get along with each other. This makes sense if we assume that the promotion of many figures from Shanghai to senior posts was carried out at the will not of Jiang but of Deng.

Gaps inevitably emerged between Deng’s selections of leaders and the reality of leadership in the party—just as at school, where the students picked by teachers to be class officers may not be the ones who are actually leading the class. These gaps gave rise to strife between the appointees and powerful figures unwilling to acquiesce to Deng’s choices, including three particularly bitter political struggles: CPC Beijing Committee Secretary Chen Xitong versus Jiang Zemin, Shanghai Committee Secretary Chen Liangyu versus Hu Jintao, and Chongqing Committee Secretary Bo Xilai versus Xi Jinping—though Bo’s challenge may be seen as one directed against the top leadership group as a whole.

Jiang and Hu were both able to eliminate their challengers and thereby win appraisals as being strong leaders in the latter parts of their terms, presenting images befitting their role as the head of a one-party government. But neither showed strong leadership in the form of bold decision-making. Instead they tended to display mental paralysis in the face of situations requiring weighty decisions.

Back in 2001, at the time of the so-called Hainan Island incident, when an American EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter jet and was forced to land on Hainan Island, the US government was unable to reach Jiang for a period of eight hours. This same tendency to go missing in the face of a crisis was also seen after Hu took over, coming clearly into view when North Korea conducted its nuclear weapon test and when Sino-Japanese relations deteriorated. And the slowness of the top leader’s response was evident recently in the process of deciding how to discipline Bo Xilai. The tardiness may be attributed to the need to coordinate with various organs, but in any case, the setup is not one in which we can expect to see a strong leader single-handedly making decisions and getting them implemented. This is why, even when the Japanese media carries stories reporting “[Premier] Wen Jiabao is isolated” or “Jiang Zemin is staging a comeback and Wen Jiabao’s responsibility is being questioned,” not a single individual has been called to account for policy missteps.

The history of politics in China reached a major transition midway through Jiang Zemin’s administration. This came when Deng Xiaoping retired from direct involvement in the government. It was like the transition from a closely held private firm to a publicly listed corporation. The problem is that even after this turning point, the corporation’s board of directors had no choice but to continue to rely on the plans drawn up by the former chief executive (Deng) even after they became out of date.

Bo Xilai’s Challenge

The current leadership team lacks the energy to overturn the basic policies set down by Deng—economic reform, liberalization at home, and a low profile in foreign policy. Some observers suggest the low-profile foreign policy line has been modified, but practically speaking, I cannot imagine how high level a conference would be required to erase a policy line drawn by Deng. So the leaders in Beijing find themselves in increasingly difficult straits, unable to come up with policies to keep up with the dizzying pace of change in the circumstances China faces.

Emblematic of this quandary are the cases of Bo Xilai, who was ousted from his post as Chongqing party chief in March this year and shorn from the party in September, and his rival Wang Yang, who has taken a contrasting course as Guangdong party chief. Here I will not discuss the Bo Xilai case itself. Instead I want to focus on the “singing red, fighting black” (changhong dahei) policies Bo implemented in Chongqing. “Fighting black” refers to his campaign to eradicate the local mafia. Collusion between the local authorities and gangsters is seen all across China. The biggest problem in this connection has been the infestation of land sharks—operators who buy up plots of land for a pittance and resell them for a hefty profit. Underworld thugs are dispatched to deal with owners who refuse to part with their property. Ordinary citizens find themselves with no recourse in cases like these, since both the police and the courts are in league with the gangsters. Bo moved to demolish this “black society” in Chongqing, ultimately arresting the deputy police chief who was its boss, and he won nationwide acclaim for this initiative.

The “singing red” policy, meanwhile, was a campaign to encourage the singing of revolutionary songs to remind people of the “good old days” of Communist Party rule. At first it took the shape of a nostalgic boom among the generation whose memories of the Cultural Revolution terror had faded and who had begun to long for an idealized past. But eventually this campaign took on a more political coloration. The trigger for this shift came from the backlash from Internet users against the criticism of Mao Zedong penned by the prominent economist Mao Yushi. His critique was directed at policy mistakes made during the latter period of Mao Zedong’s rule, and it did not include any previously unseen content. But it drew a surprisingly harsh reaction, and the author came under relentless attack on the Internet. It is interesting to note that many of the attackers wrote comments suggesting that the Cultural Revolution period was better than the present—that Chinese society was more equitable back then and did not suffer from the widespread bureaucratic corruption seen today.

Bo’s combination of policies won support from the many powerless people who had suffered official abuse without recourse and also from the camp of discontented people who had failed to benefit from the economic reform and liberalization drive. The leaders in Beijing felt threatened by this, and their sense of crisis was summed up in a pair of comments made by Premier Wen Jiabao in a press conference following the meeting of the National People’s Congress in March. In this press conference, held shortly before Bo was disciplined, Wen noted that there are still forces trying to bring about a Cultural Revolution in China and that the party may lose everything that it has built up so far unless the reform process is advanced rigorously.

The central leadership of the party has removed Bo Xilai as a threat, but the rich soil of discontent into which he was seeking to plant his seeds is still there. And there is a strong chance that in the future some politician will try to become a second Bo, aiming to reap a big harvest from this fertile ground. The headache for the current leaders is that the unassailable legacy of Deng Xiaoping makes it impossible for them to pander to the camp whose support Bo was able to gather. For example, seriously tackling the issue of income redistribution could well reignite the debate over communism versus capitalism that was put to rest by Deng over 20 years ago. So the current leaders, who were selected under a system committed to the values of Deng’s reform and liberalization drive, can only make minor adjustments to the existing set of policies.

Wen Yang’s Reform Agenda

In contrast to Bo’s approach, the policies followed by Guandong party chief Wang Yang represented “rigorous implementation” of the reform program at the local level—in other words, they matched the approach that Premier Wen advocated at his March press conference. When Wang became party secretary in Guangdong in 2007, the first point he stressed was freedom of thought. In an address he delivered in Guangzhou at the end of that year, along with a call for determined action to further the reform and liberalization policies in Guangdong, he used the phrase “thought emancipation” (jiefang sixiang) 22 times. Among the concrete points to which Wang referred were direct elections for bottom-level cadres, reform of the functions of the National People’s Congress and the People's Political Consultative Conference, reform of the judiciary, establishment of a system to prevent corruption, and even reform of the central government’s functions. Among the 19 “Shenzhen reform measures” Wang proposed, the first 8 involved popular participation in the political system—though of course within the framework of one-party rule. This drew considerable attention both within Guangdong and elsewhere. He suggested introducing competitive elections for district chiefs and the objective of introducing elections for city mayors in the future, provided certain conditions were first met. And he also referred to the watchdog role of the media and to the three-way division of government power.

What is interesting in the contrast between Wang Yang and Bo Xilai is that even though the proposals advanced by Wang were much more concrete and certain to change society than the policies undertaken by Bo—and involved decisions that required him to display bravery within the party—they seemed to be too slow in the face of the terrific pace of change, and people responded more positively to Bo’s program, even though it involved drastic measures certain to cause social turmoil.

This may reflect popular sentiment that the status quo cannot be changed with easy reforms. The fact that leadership has changed hands repeatedly since the adoption of the reform and liberalization program being advanced by the Communist Party has weakened the party’s legitimacy, and on top of that, actual authority has started to slip away from the party regardless of its intentions. Emblematic of this trend is the rise of large state-owned enterprises. The annual salaries of chief executives at SOEs are capped at 60 million yuan (5 million yuan a month) , while ordinary workers are said to make 2,000–3,000 yuan a month. How can such a state of affairs exist in a communist country?

A related issue is the pay of party bureaucrats, of whom there are said to be as many as 70 million: The publicly released figures for their annual salaries differ from the concealed income they receive to satisfy their pride. In Chinese the latter is called “gray income.” In practice it consists almost entirely of bribes. And SOEs have been playing an essential role as the source of these funds. They have been given contracts for projects on a preferential basis and allowed to monopolize markets so that they can make profits, which they then use to pay bribes. From the late 1990s through the early 2000s, when the private-sector economy was booming, this problem was relatively small in scale, but in the face of the global economic crisis following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the state-owned sector once again came to the fore. The expression guojin mintui meaning, “the state advances as the private sector retreats,” is used to describe this phenomenon. China’s massive 4 trillion yuan of investment to support the domestic economy won plaudits from around the world and gave a welcome boost to the global economy as well, but it had the serious side effect of sharply widening the disparities within the country.

The authorities in China are now trying to tackle the structure of corruption that has arisen from this process, but they cannot be expected to take serious action against the arrangements that provide their undercover income. Furthermore, the cumulative will of the SOEs is evidently playing a greater role than the will of the party in determining China’s actions on an everyday basis. This is typified by the involvement of China National Offshore Oil Corporation in the territorial issues of the South China Sea.

Central Leadership in a Tight Spot

The party’s central leadership has been trying to use the media as watchdogs. But media organs, whether new or established, can bare their fangs as watchdogs only at the local level. Local governments, caught between the rising tide of public criticism and the untouchable authority of the central leadership, have been losing their vitality in a highly visible manner.

Recently Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer and civil rights activist, sought asylum in the US embassy in Beijing, and he submitted an appeal to Premier Wen calling on the central government to prosecute corruption at the local level. As this case shows, the interests of the local authorities do not necessarily match those of the central leadership. By allowing the media to expose wrongdoing at the local level, the central leadership has decisively widened the already-existing gap between itself and local authorities, exacerbating the tendency for the latter to feign obedience while pursuing their own agenda behind the scenes.

With its legitimacy slipping away ineluctably, the CPC’s only means of satisfying the public is economic development, and so there is a limit to the party’s ability to temper the pace of the advance so as to make adjustments. And, for the reasons I noted above, it is politically difficult for the leadership to make a sharp policy shift toward an emphasis on redistribution. In other words, the present leadership team can only continue on the current course of development, knowing that it will be accompanied by the widening of disparities as a side effect. Under these circumstances the biggest threat to the administration is that widespread corruption will lead to a buildup of popular energy that will be directed against the government. If this happens, Premier Wen’s warning that the party may “lose everything” could emerge as a realistic possibility.

The key issues for the new administration of Xi Jinping will be the maintenance of rule by the CPC and the achievement of a soft landing for the political system. But it seems unlikely that the public, whose anger is rapidly reaching boiling point, will patiently wait for the party to advance political reform at its own dilatory pace.

(Originally written in Japanese.)

China politics Deng Xiaoping Hu Jintao Xi Jinping Bo Xilai Tomisaka Satoshi CPC Jiang Zemin Wang Yang