West should prepare for confusing new Chinese leader
November 7th, 2012
06:45 AM ET

West should prepare for confusing new Chinese leader

By Jiang Xueqin, Special to CNN

Jiang Xueqin is a China-born writer and educator. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal and the Chronicle of Higher Education and The Diplomat. The views expressed are his own.

Much of the world’s focus may be on the U.S. election results right now, but in China, the Communist Party is preparing to put in place the men who will rule the country. And the West will have its eyes firmly fixed on the man meant to rule them all:  Xi Jinping.

In China’s “red nobility,” Vice President Xi is as red as they come: His father was in charge of Yan’an, the spiritual birthplace of Mao Zedong’s Communist victory, before helping to spearhead Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms after the Cultural Revolution.

As Xi begins to take the reins of China’s government, Communist Party, and military he will face a growing chorus calling for economic and political reforms.  The powerful vested interests – the local officials, the state-owned enterprises, the banks and the property developers – that corrupted the Chinese economy at the end of Jiang Zemin’s command have firmly entrenched their power and position under President Hu Jintao’s rule. Now, China’s ever accelerating train of growing inequality, corruption, and financial mismanagement threatens to derail the economy – and with it the legitimacy and authority of Communist Party rule. Critics argue that the political suppression under Hu has only made worse the oncoming train wreck, as power has been monopolized by those most opposed to the reforms necessary to continue China’s economic miracle.

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When Xi takes over, it will not be his psychology and personality that will determine his policies and actions, but rather his position and the circumstances of his rule.  And that means that Xi’s rule will be erratic, contradictory, and ultimately either disappointing or even dangerous. To understand why, let’s first examine how Hu managed to effectively sideline Jiang Zemin to assume ultimate authority and command of China.

When Hu took over from Jiang a decade ago, many doubted he could escape Jiang’s shadow. But he did so by refuting Jiang’s most controversial programs while undermining his protégés.

Hu proved himself to be a master practitioner of Machiavellian tactics, but in hindsight his actions could also have been predicted using game theory analysis. In his book Automate This, Christopher Steiner discusses how political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s computer algorithms, by focusing on game theory analysis or how nations can best maximize their short-term self-interest against other nations, are by some measures twice as effective at predicting world events as the Central Intelligence Agency’s best analysts, who over-emphasize psychologies and personalities.

And then there is Robert Caro’s exhaustively researched study of power and politics, his biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson.  But despite Caro’s tenacious efforts to prove otherwise, there just isn’t much to link the different stages of Johnson’s political career.  As a young Congressman from Texas, Lyndon Johnson simply represented the financial interests of his political backers; as a United States senator, Johnson accumulated power and prestige by allying himself with Southern senators fanatically committed to racial injustice; and as president, Lyndon Johnson betrayed his Southern allies by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 before destroying his political career, reputation, and legacy by escalating the war in Vietnam.

Just like Hu and Johnson, Xi will also need to play the game of thrones.  But arguably, Xi will be inheriting the weakest and most precarious leadership position in the history of the People’s Republic of China.  First, he has a weak political base, and the Bo Xilai scandal has damaged the reputation of the “red nobility,” Xi’s natural allies. Second, Hu is leaving office at a time when China commands global respect and recognition – and so the question for Hu and his allies is why he ought to leave office at all.

Given his lack of political allies and Hu’s undisputed authority as the elder statesman of Chinese politics, Xi will be no doubt be focused on building his political base while undermining Hu’s authority by adopting a two-pronged strategy that will be contradictory and perhaps even dangerous.

In his bid to carve out his own political space, Xi will first choose to champion political and economic reforms, much in the same way that Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang chose to champion political and economic reforms in 1980s China to escape the shadow of their political patron, Deng Xiaoping.  This makes sense for him because he would not have the political power to implement any significant reforms, and thus cause a political backlash – but Hu would be forced to expend much political capital, resources, and authority to put a lid on the growing pressure for reform.

Xi’s second maneuver will be far more unnerving:  He will attempt to woo the Chinese military.  The Chinese military as an institution knows that political power comes from the barrel of a gun, and so feels underserved and underappreciated by the Chinese Communist Party.  The Party called in the military to suppress the student protestors in 1989, and that has hurt the military’s reputation. But what’s far more damaging from their perspective is how the first two decades of Deng’s economic reforms forced them to generate their own revenue, leading to rampant corruption among its officer corps.  Today, the People’s Liberation Army is managed by a new generation of officers who are professional and well-educated, but also arrogant and inexperienced in warfare. Determined to win  glory in the South China Sea and beyond, they will ultimately choose to follow the political leader that’s most willing to subordinate national interests to their imperial dreams.

That Xi would advocate for rule-of-law and a freer media within China while endorsing provocative PLA maneuvers in the South China Sea and more spending on the PLA’s maritime attack capabilities will unnerve and confuse both Westerners and Chinese alike. But Xi knows that to win the game of thrones, you have to roll the dice.

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Topics: China

soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. Cecil

    you are an idiot

    November 7, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Reply
  2. USN Ret.

    As long as China holds so much of our debt. They will always be hard to deal with. We can't defult on the debt and China can always call in the chips. Obama and congress must relise that China pays aboy 1/5th of their salary.

    November 7, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Reply
    • EyesOnU

      It's hard for the U.S. to run away from China's debt LOL

      November 9, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Reply
    • EyesOnU

      China will convert from dollar to gold...

      November 9, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Reply
  3. EyesOnU

    I believe that if the war break out in the south china sea then there will be left over a huge dark cloud of ashes. Consequently, left behind many widowed and widower.

    November 7, 2012 at 9:35 pm | Reply
  4. paul

    i like the new leader coz he somehows want a warm relation with america

    November 8, 2012 at 1:33 am | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    Should the new president Xi Jinping have his predecessor Hu Jintao in his way to assert power, he certainly would have a powerful adversary. Under Hu China became an industrial goliath with the world's second largest economy. It has launched a more assertive foreign policy while simultaneously assured other nations of its intended peaceful rise. People close to Hu know few details about him and he seems to have a mild-mannered character and has kept his distance from the media during his time in office. Xi Jinping is know to be personable and popular and like Hu, he is also a builder of consensus, bridging competing factions at the top of the party. So it will be interesting to see how Xi evolves and where he's taking China to.

    November 8, 2012 at 7:31 am | Reply
  6. RLTJ's

    It is not easy to compare China's political structure with that of the West. In the West, people have a more direct hand in selecting the national leadership. How people think [ social culture] has to be considered because while western politicians would like to superimpose, they must also cater to the electorates. The end is a political system that is a product of society in general.

    China belongs to a political system wherein the national leadership is determined by the ruling party, in this case by the CCP, which is the only political party, through party congresses and party elections. The culture of the Chinese people maybe needs to be considered but it has no direct bearing in the selection of national leadership.

    In other Asian countries like the Philippines, Political systems are patterned after the West but the product may not be exactly like that in the West. West is advanced, liberated while world countryside is backward by comparison. Culture plays a part and Asian culture is somehow different.

    In a province that is rural and mainly agricultural, it is the landed minority that dominates the political system. Leftists have always catered to the majority but leftist rarely win free elections. Culture is mainly feudal and semi feudal. Poor have high esteem for the rich. Subservience to the rich and the educated is part of culture. By culture the poor see themselves as product of destiny and product of God's will, and not a product of class exploitations [which is what leftist propaganda keeps telling them]. Also, poor dream of becoming rich.

    November 9, 2012 at 5:19 am | Reply
    • David Miller

      The Chinese run their country more like a corporation, whereas the board of directors pick a CEO based on his resume and performance records. Imaging let Apple employees to elect their CEO, and see how the company can still thrive.

      November 12, 2012 at 9:53 am | Reply
  7. johnny

    China's politics is none of America's business, to question or comment – unless it involves global security and threaten peace.

    Americans should not forget until President Obama is allowed more room to resolve this inherited monstrous national debts – USA is not regarded by the model for the evolving new world.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:05 pm | Reply
  8. johnny

    China's politics is none of America's business, to question or comment – unless it involves global security and threaten peace.

    Americans should not forget until President Obama is allowed more room to resolve this inherited monstrous national debts – USA is not regarded as a good role model by a evolving new world.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Reply
    • purplefrog

      I think, as a major international power (arguably the next superpower) chinese politics are a global issue – the same way that America's politics are a global issue – lots of interesting opinions being shared over the debate of China's place as the next superpower here: http://opinsy.com/statement/391/china-is-the-world-s-next-great-superpower/?ref=external

      November 12, 2012 at 7:35 am | Reply
  9. PJ

    Bibi says that after he's nuked Iran, He's going after China and North Korea. Appears "W" got a consulting job in Tel Aviv recently...

    November 13, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Reply
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