Chinese leadership: The challenge in 2012

Author: Kerry Brown, Chatham House

One side-effect of the Dengist economic reforms which started to penetrate deeply in the 1980s was the transition from a ruling Chinese Communist Party that was focused on class struggle and revolutionary aspiration under Mao, to one in which a new technocratic elite were in control.

In the words of Wang Hui, one of contemporary China’s foremost public intellectuals, that meant that the party started fulfilling a more ‘evaluative’ function and became the sort of ‘bureaucratic machine’ that Mao had tried to prevent. While the economy grew and prospered, the party looked at its own internal governance, at how it promoted key officials, how it dealt with its own accountability, and disciplined those in its fold who had become corrupt. In short, it tried to professionalise itself.

Central to this task was the need to have a mechanism (mostly peer pressure) by which the top elite controlled themselves. There was no question of some entity, like the legal system or civil society, standing above the party and placing obligations and regulations upon it. But there was a sense that the party needed to tidy up its act, and that another messy leadership transition of the kind that had occurred between Mao and Deng (which had taken almost two years to achieve) was a luxury the party could no longer afford. Party congresses which had occurred sporadically before 1982 started to happen every five years. Time limits were set on those holding high office. By stealth rather than by stated aim, retirement ages were brought in. By 2002, when there was a transition from the third to the fourth generation of leadership (from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao), nervousness that this process would lead to infighting among factions in the party remained evident till some years into Hu’s era. Only in 2007 was Hu seen by commentators and experts of the party to become his own man with the party congress, meaning he could then elevate a number of people close to him, and gently ease out of positions of influence those seen as close to Jiang before.

The imminent party congress in late 2012 is arousing all the speculation that the congress of 2002 did. There has been a decade more of the party being able to build its own internal governance, and trying to modernise its own structures. In the last few years it has practised what has been called ‘intra-party democracy’, attempting to make its processes more predictable and a little more transparent. In a strategy of careful management, the likeliest successor to Hu next year, Xi Jinping, looks like he is following exactly the same path to the crucial position of General Secretary of the CCP — elevation to the Standing Committee of the Politburo as Vice Premier (like Hu), and vice chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, in charge of army affairs (like Hu). A range of leaders around him are also being carefully groomed to slip into major leadership positions when the current incumbents on the all-important standing committee of nine see seven of their members retire. So far, so good.

While the party has managed its affairs with great care and attention (Hu is known to almost religiously follow due process, and attempts to build broad consensus across all shades of party opinion for what he does), there is still a nagging sense that while this fourth generation leadership may well have got the internal issue of succession well sorted, it has done so by pushing aside the larger, and much more contentious and challenging issues of broader political reform that are now staring it in the face. Since its entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001, China’s economy has rocketed ahead — as much to the surprise of its leaders as those outside. Good economic performance was predicted back in 2001, but not one in which, in less than ten years, China would become the world’s largest exporter, largest importer, largest holder of foreign reserves and second largest economy. Five years ahead of what had been expected, China is in a much more powerful position than it, or others, had believed possible.

This has been a double-edged sword. While it has bought massive increases in GDP and prosperity, it has also created a society where there remain sharp divisions between the haves and the have-nots, and where social classes, from entrepreneurs, to the urban middle class, to the farmers — who, after all, still make up over half the population — are increasingly in conflict with each other over issues from property rights, the state of the environment, rights over pensions, and demands to have more of the wealth that the country has created.

The increasing repression since June 2009, where rights lawyers and activists have been victimised and frequently imprisoned, is symptomatic of a leadership that has been bold in its economic thinking but profoundly cautious in its political views. In the new leadership there are no signs, as yet, that anyone has a particularly strong idea about how, for instance, to deepen the rule of law in the country by allowing genuinely independent courts, or giving a proper legal status to civil society groups. In 2011 the fundamental contradiction of contemporary China is that it runs on a largely centralised system inherited from the Soviet Union in the mid 20th century while its economy is one of the most modern in the world.

As it becomes clearer who the fifth generation leaders will be, and how jobs will be allocated among them, scrutiny will be focussed on what clues they give about how they might approach this hugely challenging and sensitive issue of political reform. The 12th Five Year Program which was passed in Beijing last March at the annual National People’s Congress, the Chinese parliament, gave some recognition to this in talking a little about the need to build social infrastructure and a more stable, equal society. For the next decade, therefore, the issue will not be about the first battle — to build GDP — but about the conflicts that have come after that, to deal with the issues China will face as it progresses towards a middle-income-status country (its stated aim by 2020). These are proving to be far trickier and more demanding than simply pumping out good growth rates, and it is on these, more and more, that the future leadership of China will need to show the same kind of strong vision that their predecessors did about the economy, back in the late 1970s.

So far there is little sign that they have the vision, or the capacity, to do this. But like it or not, over the coming decade, this more than anything else will be their key task.

Kerry Brown is head of the Asia Program at Chatham house, London, where he leads Europe-China Research. He is author of ‘Ballot Box China’ (Zed books, 2011) and a biography of Hu Jintao which will appear in early 2012.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Governing China’.