Understanding China’s Power Transition

 China’s Transition: Towards a Red Revival or Socialist Democracy?

 

 November 17, 2012 (Nile Bowie) – As China’s 18th Communist
Party Congress draws to a close, the world’s most populous nation prepares to install
the country’s fifth generation of leadership since the Chinese Revolution of
1949. Despite overseeing a stringent police state with heavy limitations on
political expression, China’s leadership have taken the nation from starvation
to space travel in just a few decades, lifting approximately 600 million people
out of poverty. [1]
Of course, the Communist Party still has a fair share of trouble on its hands;
managing an economic slowdown, finding ways to raise incomes while keeping
production costs competitive, and dealing with radical pro-secessionist
sentiment in Tibet and Xinjiang. Undoubtedly, China’s leadership has maintained
its legitimacy by overseeing massive economic growth – its inability to
continue on such a path would ultimately create trouble for the Communist
Party. Chairman Mao once preached, “An
army of the people is invincible!”
– hence, China spends an astounding $111
billion on internal security, more than what is allocated to the People’s
Liberation Army. [2]

President Hu Jintao’s
administration oversaw the construction of new infrastructure and high-speed
rail networks, the rise of emerging provincial metropolises such as Shenzhen
and Chongqing, and China’s lucrative economic engagement with Africa. During an
address at the Party Congress, President Hu hinted at some kind of reform to
the existing system:

“We must continue to make both
active and prudent efforts to carry out the reform of the political structure,
and make people’s democracy more extensive, fuller in scope and sounder in
practice; however, we will never copy a Western political system.”
[3]

It remains to be seen
exactly what kind of “democracy” President Hu is referring to, however it is
apparent that China’s leadership recognizes the need to address the complete lack
of public participation in the political direction of the country. Hu spoke of
“diversifying the forms of democracy” and “democratic elections,” and with
that, one would hope for the incremental relaxation on political expression and
dissent.

In combating the severe
wealth gap between the rich and poor, President Hu has also called for China to
double its 2010 GDP and per capita income for both urban and rural residents by
2020, the first time that per capita income has been included in the country’s economic
growth target. [4]
Hu also called for the rapid modernization of national defense and armed
forces, and the need to build China into a maritime power to protect its marine
resources and interests. [5]
Additionally, Hu praised the pro-autonomy policies of the “one country,
two systems” arrangement, the need for integrating urban and rural
development, and the possibility of military cooperation with Taiwan. [6]
Of course, Hu himself will not be at the helm to steer China into its planned
trajectory; it is safely assumed that Xi Jinping and his designated deputy, Li
Keqiang, will be installed as president and premier in March 2013.

Xi Jinping is noted for
ushering in positive economic reforms in the coastal province of Zhejiang,
where GDP has grown by 10% annually over the past 30 years through bolstering small-scale
entrepreneurs, providing supportive credit to private ventures, and governing
with very little intervention in firm management. [7]
Xi is the son one of the Communist Party’s founding fathers, Xi Zhongxun, and
was banished to labor in the remote village of Liangjiahe as a teenager during
the Cultural Revolution before studying chemical engineering at the elite Tsinghua
University in Beijing. Xi belongs to the ‘princeling’ faction, the offspring of
party veterans who favor crony-capitalism by steering economic growth with high
levels of state intervention, many of whom (such as Bo Xilai) champion a
revival of Maoist socialism with contemporary values. Xi will be the first
‘princeling’ in the seat of power and it is unclear if his policies will
reflect the governing style of others in his faction, or that of his own
approach of adopting lesser government intervention. Xi appears to relate
little to Maoist policy, only to the nostalgia of singing red songs and using
the Chairman’s aphorisms. [8]

Incoming premier Li Keqiang,
who also toiled in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, is from the ‘tuanpai
faction. The ‘tuanpai’ have come from lesser-privileged backgrounds and
have been groomed for leadership through the Communist Youth League; the
faction is more focused on populist policies, rural development, and improving
the conditions of farmers and migrant workers. The ‘princelings’ orbit around
former President Jiang Zemin, while the ‘tuanpai’ favor the direction
taken under Hu Jintao; the incoming administration has likely been selected to
strike a balance between the two factions. A more dismissive analysis of these
factional differences by US-based Chinese dissident Yu Jie could potentially be
more accurate:

“People say Hu and Xi belong to
different political factions. They say Hu comes from the Communist Youth League
and is therefore more populist, whereas Xi, because he represents the
“princelings” — sons and daughters of high officials — works in
service of the wealthier coastal provinces. I think they’re not that
dissimilar. No matter if it’s Hu or Xi, they’re still only representative of
the few-hundred families who make up the Chinese aristocracy. They are not in
office thanks to a Western-style election, but are the products of a black-box
operation. They didn’t rise because they’re clever and capable, but precisely
because they’re mediocre. They are where they are today because they are
harmless to the special interest groups that run China.”
[9]

Since a large demographic of
people in China have benefitted from economic development, many have become
complacent or exorbitantly wealthy, and are generally uninterested in political
activism. While public trust in the government may be higher today than in
1989, the new leadership has a chance to rebuild public confidence by raising
per capita incomes and loosening restrictions on expression. If Xi governs the
country using the “Zhejiang Model” and supports local entrepreneurship, this
would help reduce the wealth gap and wouldn’t necessarily hinder the extraordinary
monopoly profits of China’s state-owned enterprises. China has avoided the
mistake of the Soviet Union when it attempted to reform politically before
doing so economically, however it still remains unclear if the Communist Party
is willing to engage in any meaningful reform of their political system.

As the United States shifts
its economic and military focus to the Asia Pacific, the question of Sino-US
relations under the Xi Administration is an important one. Beijing’s desire to
flex its maritime muscle and exercise its sovereignty over disputed territories
in the South China Sea will certainly not sit well with the Obama administration,
which has ostensibly adopted a policy written about by American foreign policy
theoreticians such as Robert Kagan, who has argued in favor of pressuring China
through territorial containment. There are a myriad of ways in which the United
States can accomplish these goals; it is more likely that Washington will
continue supporting dissident groups and attempting to hamper China’s overseas
development projects, rather than engage in any military exchange. The Korean
Peninsula remains a tense flashpoint capable of drawing both the United States
and China into military conflict. The incoming Xi administration must be a
mediator; it should more adamantly oppose the US military presence in South
Korea and more actively assist economic development and social programs in
North Korea. Xi Jinping is known to be a straight talker of sorts, and
Washington can likely expect less diplomatic rhetoric from Beijing if it
continues its current policy:

“Some foreigners with full bellies
and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us. First, China does not
export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it
does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?”
[10]

Notes

[1] China
Wealth Gap to Stay in Danger Zone, Government Adviser Says
, Bloomberg, September
24, 2012

[2] China to Spend USD
111 Billion on Internal Security
, Outlook India, November 14, 2012

[3] Hu
says China will not copy Western system in political reform
, Xinhua,
November 08, 2012

[4] China
adds resident’s per capita income into economic growth target
, Xinhua, November
08, 2012

[5] Hu
calls for efforts to build China into maritime power
, Xinhua, November 08,
2012

[6] Hu
suggests military security trust mechanism, peace agreement with Taiwan
,
Xinhua, November 08, 2012

[7] Zhejiang
Province: A Free-Market Success Story
, Bloomberg, October 20, 2008

[8] Xi
Jinping’s Chongqing Tour: Gang of Princelings Gains Clout
, The Jamestown
Foundation, December 17, 2010

[9] Empty Suit,
Foreign Policy, February 13, 2012

[10] BBC News –
Profile: Xi Jinping
, BBC, November 08, 2012

Nile Bowie is a Kuala Lumpur-based American writer and
photographer for the Centre for Research on Globalization in Montreal, Canada.
He explores issues of terrorism, economics and geopolitics.