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.
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.