October 30th, 2012
11:33 AM ET

Don't expect easy answers with China's leadership change

By Guy de Jonquières, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Guy de Jonquières is a senior fellow at the European Centre for International Political EconomyThe views expressed are his own.

In mid-November, the world will get its first glimpse of China’s new top leadership, when a bunch of politicians – probably all men, dressed in identical dark suits, white shirts and red ties – file out at the end of the 18th Communist Party Congress. After months of murky wheeling and dealing behind closed doors that has overshadowed all else on the Beijing political agenda, we shall finally have a better idea of who will be steering China during the next five years, and of the course they will set.

Or will we?

The cloak of secrecy surrounding the appointment of the Communist Party’s new Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), China’s supreme ruling body, has inspired intense speculation, both inside and outside the country. Sinologists have vied to out-do each other with constantly changing lists of who is in and who is out of the running, and whether the line-up will consist of more or fewer than the nine men on the outgoing PSC.

From such rune-reading, pundits have sought to divine answers to questions such as how far the Party has overcome its violent internal upheavals over the purging of Bo Xilai, the over-ambitious Chongqing Party boss; whether Beijing will yield to growing popular demands for greater political accountability and openness; and whether it will seek to re-energize flagging economic growth with a wave of bold, liberalizing reforms.

These are all important questions. However, we are unlikely to be much the wiser about the answers even when the names of the PSC members are known. For a start, hard information about many of them is sparse, often consisting of little more than sanitized official biographies. Very little is known for sure about what – if any, personal philosophies – priorities or values will shape their decisions once in office. Nowadays, the route to high office in China is to rise without trace. Hardly anything is known about China’s incoming President Xi Jinping apart from his carefully spun official image as a clean and people-oriented leader.

China watchers’ past attempts to characterize or categorize senior party officials by their beliefs have often been wide of the mark. When Hu Jintao, China’s outgoing president and Party general secretary, took office a decade ago, some discerned in him signs of a would-be reformer. Such hopes have been dashed by his record as a generally cautious – even reactionary – leader with a marked intolerance of domestic dissent.

Furthermore, analysis of what little is known of the top leaders’ deliberations suggests that many defy pigeon-holing into neat boxes labeled “liberal,” “conservative” or whatever. Instead, they often appear to behave opportunistically, switching positions and allegiances in a way that defies any consistent pattern.

There is a good explanation for this that goes to the heart of how the political game is played in China. The name of the game is, above all else, gaining and keeping power. That means not just maneuvering for personal advantage but, even more important, preserving the monopoly on political power of the Party, to which its leaders owe their positions. However intense their personal rivalries, they know that, unless they hang together, they risk hanging separately.

One result of that awareness, and the sense of anxiety that it engenders among China’s leaders, is a remarkably pragmatic attitude to policy-making. Though they speak the often impenetrable language of Leninist jargon, they are no ideologues: indeed, the Party nowadays is pretty much an ideology-free zone. What really concerns it is doing whatever is best calculated to ensure its own primacy and, ultimately, survival.

When the late Deng Xiaoping, the former supreme leader, set China on the road to liberalizing economic reform more than three decades ago, he did so not out of any infatuation with market capitalism; it was because he recognized that the economic, social and institutional devastation inflicted on the country by Mao Zedong had left the Party with an uncertain future and that he needed to find a better way. Nor did he rush headlong into embracing reform, at least initially. Instead, he experimented through trial and error, in his words: “crossing the river by feeling the stones.” So much for China’s supposed “long-termism.”

Much, however, has changed since Deng’s day. He possessed unquestioned personal authority – without even holding a formal position in government. But nowadays, China is no longer ruled by a single strong man who hands down edicts from on high. Instead, it has gravitated towards a collective leadership and decision-making by consensus. That does not mean that a natural consensus exists among its leaders: on the contrary, they have become increasingly factionalized. Rather, it means that unless they can be induced to reach a consensus, decisions do not get taken.

But whether China’s incoming leadership strikes out in different and novel directions will depend only partly on the ability of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, its presumptive new president and prime minister, to win over their PSC colleagues. Much more important will be whether the collective leadership decides, as Deng did, that the mounting challenges confronting the Party and the country are so pressing that embracing change is the only option.

One, increasingly urgent, challenge is to re-engineer China’s economic model, shifting it away from a reliance on massive and wasteful over-investment to consumption as the main driver of growth, while coping at the same time with the consequences of a dramatic increase in income inequality, a rapidly aging population and a labor force that will soon start to shrink.

Another is to try to restore the Party’s political legitimacy. This has been battered by growing public resentment at a range of grievances about issues including food safety, the environment and lack of affordable housing – but above all by seething anger at rampant official corruption and the corrosive mistrust it has bred towards the political élite.

A third challenge, perhaps the biggest of all, is to try to adapt a controlling, “top down,” system of government to growing pressures from below: to meet the rising expectations and dissatisfaction of a better-educated, more questioning and increasingly urbanized population that is demanding greater rights and freedoms – and to which social networks and other technological innovations now provide powerful channels through which to express their views.

Social networks have not only given voice to those seeking political and economic reforms; they have also empowered nationalist movements. Some Chinese policymakers say pressure applied through the internet by hard-line activists has significantly influenced Beijing’s stance in its recent confrontation with Japan over the disputed ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

Meeting these challenges will pose a daunting test for China’s new leaders. Not only must they agree on what policies to adopt in response; they must also show that they can implement them effectively, often against strong resistance from within the party’s own ranks.

Substantive economic reforms, for instance, will require a thorough overhaul of China’s ossified financial system and an attack on the powers and market monopolies of the state-own enterprises that dominate major sectors of its economy. That will mean not only facing down those who see such liberalization as weakening the Party’s levers of control; it will mean taking on the many vested interests within the party that profit handsomely – financially as well as politically – from the status quo. It could be a titanic battle.

Wen Jiabao, China’s outgoing prime minister, has argued with growing urgency for such reforms, warning repeatedly that failure to undertake them will threaten the country’s economic future. But all his pleading and cajoling have achieved little, in the face of implacable opposition from those who stand to lose out from change.

Will the new men (or women) at the top be any more successful than Wen in breaking the mold – or will they be trapped by it, leaving them at the mercy of events and forces beyond their capacity to control? It is much too early to tell. Simply knowing their names, job titles and previous careers will not provide enough clues. More time and more political (green) tea leaf-reading will be needed before clear answers start to emerge.

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Topics: China

soundoff (47 Responses)
  1. Johnna

    Never trust a G00K !

    October 30, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Reply
    • Bill

      How did it feel when you dropped out of school in the second grade? Were you disappointed in yourself, or was it a relief to no longer be burdened by your "special" label and driving the short bus on a daily basis?

      October 30, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
    • ocelot562

      I regret to inform you that you have the wrong derogatory term...

      October 30, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Reply
    • Midnight Owl

      You can't even be a competent racist lol. FAIL!

      October 30, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Reply
    • asdf

      Wow you have a China man's chance of receiving many likes with that comment. It exactly like sending him into the rail road mountain tunnel with a lit stick of dynamite.

      October 30, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Reply
  2. jackinbox

    Rapid change can only be implemented by dictators, not by horse trading. They assign a man, we elect between ding and dong. It is the same story. They say nothing, our pair promise everything. It amounts to the same thing too.

    October 30, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Reply
    • smoveopr8r

      WHAT!!!

      October 30, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Reply
  3. paul

    "China is no longer ruled by a single strong man who hands down edicts from on high. Instead, it has gravitated towards a collective leadership and decision-making by consensus. That does not mean that a natural consensus exists among its leaders: on the contrary, they have become increasingly factionalized. Rather, it means that unless they can be induced to reach a consensus, decisions do not get taken."

    Now that sounds familiar.

    October 30, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Reply
  4. anonymous

    Lets hope China is in the business of doing what is right to help maintain a healthy planet. Whomever they choose must be willing to think beyond the boundaries of his own existence. Buddha is wise and I am sure he will choose the right candidate for the job.

    October 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Reply
    • M Houston

      "Lets hope China is in the business of doing what is right to help maintain a healthy planet."

      What planet do you live on?? China's leaders are too busy being greedy to care what becomes
      of our planet.

      October 30, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Reply
      • Java

        Nope, you are death wrong. I have live in China and talk to Chinese; 99% of people I met acknowledge that their leaders care for them, because they all now have a standard of living that their ancestors can only dream of.

        November 1, 2012 at 12:55 am |
      • Maersk

        M Houston the kwok head, I agree that China's leaders are greedy. They are greedy because even though they have you to zuck their kwok they still want more American kwok zucking kwok zuckers.

        November 1, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  5. Bill

    While many consider China to be an unstoppable emerging superpower, they have a plethora of challenges to overcome in both their economic and political system. One wrong move, and the cards could come crashing down.

    October 30, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Reply
  6. Joe M.

    The people of China will not want a leader who takes them into a dangerous brink of war situation. They want more properity for the masses of ordinary people and a peaceful world in which to prosper.

    October 30, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Reply
  7. Steve

    I like to be the guy in Iowa who can brag about how China's president once stayed in his room.

    October 30, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Reply
  8. Great China

    China has become the worlds great superpower. America has been regulated to a country that is controlled by China economic engine. America will become puppet state. Just as America defeated USSR in cold war, China has defeated America in economic war.

    October 31, 2012 at 5:24 am | Reply
  9. cmmrc

    Who cares about China, or any other countries? Who expect easy answers with China's leadership change? Fareed Zakaria? Someone please care a little bit for USA! Fareed Zakaria must be paid by China.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:24 am | Reply
  10. j. von hettlingen

    Along with China's economy, which has seen breakneck growth and seemed unstoppable, there are now growing concerns over the widening wealth gap. Days ahead of the 18th Party Congress in Beijing, authorities have tightened security and stepped up surveillance on dissidents, activists and lawyers, forcing some of them to leave the capital until after the congress. What are citizens for? In a democracy, politicians see them as voters and tax-payers. In China they are nothing more than the engine of the economic growth.

    October 31, 2012 at 8:10 am | Reply
    • Maersk

      The only concerns the Chinese have now is whether you will continue to zuck their kwok and swallow their kum. They don't like it if you spit it out because that would be very humiliating.

      November 1, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Reply
  11. krm1007 © ™

    China is the next and the only hope left for this world. The existing paradigm has failed. Poverty, schisms, conflicts, democratic demise is prevalent and the world is a divided place. We need change. Change from status quo. Change from the UN system. Change from current superpower imbalance and ineffectiveness. In this context, everything else becomes redundant and irrelevant. Whether China is masculine or feminine or whose daughter is in Harvard or Penn State etc. is of minimal importance. What is of importance is the fact that China has come a long way in the past 15 years. The system works: the economic model is proven, the political system clicks, social structure is progressive though not perfect. Let us give them a chance and see what they can do for us. Let us celebrate their arrival and give them kudos for what they have achieved so far. Most importantly, let’s hope and pray they continue to bless us with their vision and passion. In God We Trust.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Reply
    • rabbiVo

      Even if the chinese communist attempt to disguise themselves as capitalist, their obvious agenda of global domination in which they plan to enslave the whole world like they enslave more than 1 billion chinese people at present, must be stopped.

      Fortunately, even if the chinese communists like to self glorify themselves as the best, in reality, they are nothing nor even deserve to be respected despite their 5000 year old history.

      chinese communists are shamelessly dishonest and morally bankrupt. chinese communist will never succeed in their goal of global domination because their lies and falsehoods can easily be defeated by the Truth.

      communist chinese like to pretend that they are the best in the world.

      In reality, communist chinese are just copying and imitating original ideas or stealing technology from the US and the west. communist china has no capability to generate the original idea and are totally dependent on the USA. Even if they have a 5000 year history, the communist chinese will always lag behind America.

      chinese communists have no morals and no shame and are nothing but thieves with big egos. Their obvious goal of global domination will never succeed and surely fail because of their shameless dishonesty and because they are morally bankrupt with absolutely zero integrity and honor.

      the chinese communists should ask themselves honestly why despite their claim to have a 5000 year history, they cannot deny the truth that:

      it was the free, God-fearing people of the USA that invented the following:
      sewing machine, telegraph, telephone, light bulb, AC, electric power grid, automobile, airplane, radio, television,transistor, integrated circuit, personal computer, microsoft, windows, internet, google, facebook, twitter, ipad, iphone, first man to land on the moon, curioisity landing in mars, voyager 1 and 2 break through the boundaries of the solar system etc... ?

      All communist china can do is copying and imitating original ideas of the USA and stealing technology and shamelessly claiming that they are the best in the world.

      If the chinese communist are really the best as they delusionally think they are, then how can they explain these facts of reality:

      1.Why is it that hundreds of thousands of chinese students are lining up every year to come study in the USA (note that not all of these chinese students come to spy on the US)? Is it because the USA has the best educational system in the world ?

      2. Why is it that all the people around the world, including chinese, want to immigrate to the USA? Why is it that among all the people in the world, no one in their right minds want to immigrate to red china?

      3. Why is it that even the sons, daughters and relatives of the past and present chinese communist party leaders come to the USA to study and some of them even became US citizens?

      To the chinese communist spies who are living here in the USA and enjoying the benefits and freedoms here in the USA and yet are against the USA, Why are you here in the USA? Why don’t you go back to china?

      November 11, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Reply
  12. johnny

    Forum article in ST 1 Nov 2012
    by David Grant:

    There are basically three types of government in modern capitalist democracies:

    – the laissez-faire capitalism practrised in the US
    – the socialist system of Europe, and the
    – guided capitalism being developed in Asia

    Asian societies are quickly rejecting the laissez-faire and socilist systems and developing something more down he centre.

    This has shown great benefit in countries like Singapore, a pioneer of strong governance, lack of corruption and a meritocratic system, where everyone has a chance to succeed based on hard work and talent.

    Of critical interest recently is the focus of China on the "unque miracle in the world" that the Singapore system has become, and it's hope that the Republic's experience can help China solve it's growing wealth gap, corruption and weak rule of law issues ("CCTV goes big on Singapore with 10 parter " last Friday).

    One of the many best practices from Singapore's experience is the adaption of a consumer tax and the concurrent elimination of income taxes.

    In the article ("Prices have gone up, so have expectations". Sept 27) Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that middle income earners probably pay very little income tax or no income tax at all.

    In summary, it was noted that the typical middle-income household in Singapore pays 7% goods and services tax and car taxes if it owns a vehicle.

    This system also provides cash subsidies for those in the lower income bracket.

    The secret to the Singapore success story is that all citizens are stakeholders and everyone contributes.

    In this way, Singapore has largely avoided the democracy trap paralysing many Western societies.

    Another best practrice that could be adopted in China would be to increase the pay of government employees and politicians, further reducing the temptation to take advantage of the system.

    The concern those in the United States and Europe should share is that if China adopts the Singapore system, it would lead to increasing investment and opportunities throughout Asia, providing early adopters of the guided capitalist system with a huge advantage.

    All of these changes will continue to require strong and capable leadership, something that the West is sorely lacking.

    November 1, 2012 at 3:02 am | Reply
  13. dainik bhasker

    The people of China will not want a leader who takes them into a dangerous brink of war situation. They want more properity for the masses of ordinary people and a peaceful world in which to prosper.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:08 am | Reply
  14. dainik bhaskar

    i like china .and china will not want a leader who takes them into a dangerous brink of war situation..

    November 6, 2012 at 1:12 am | Reply
  15. rabbiVo

    The chinese communist government is illegitimate and does not represent the true will of the chinese people. The chinese communist government just usurps the authority by coercion and brutal repression of the chinese people.

    communist china will collapse soon.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:57 pm | Reply
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    April 29, 2013 at 4:27 am | Reply

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