By Guy de Jonquières, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Guy de Jonquières is a senior fellow at the European Centre for International Political Economy. The 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.