China: Big Ifs

The new leadership of China, unveiled so recently during the seventeenth Party Congress in October, is taking the country towards its date with destiny – the opening of the Beijing Olympics, on the eighth day of the auspicious eighth month of 2008, at eight minutes past eight in the evening. The world will have a chance to look long and hard at the leaders of the globe’s greatest, and most successful, mass organisation, the Chinese Communist Party as it pulls the nation towards superpower status.

The World Today
Published 1 March 2008 Updated 7 April 2020 4 minute READ

Professor Kerry Brown

Former Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

Thirty years after the reform process started in 1978, following three decades of Maoist dictatorship, things have come a long way in China. It is now the world’s third largest economy, the holder of the largest foreign currency reserves and the world’s largest recipient of foreign direct investment. Its impact is being felt globally, as a trading partner and geopolitical actor. The Olympics only reinforces all of this, providing a stage on which Politburo leaders can be seen, understood, and judged. This level of scrutiny is unprecedented in Chinese history, with over thirty thousand journalists converging on Beijing for the three weeks of the event.

The world will be searching hard for clues about how the elite leadership is performing. Already there are clear signs that the government is getting nervy – with evidence that some weeks before the Olympics even start, the city will be cleared of ‘undesirable’ elements – migrant workers, prostitutes, and dissidents.

President Hu Jintao, who has never given a media interview to a western outlet since assuming power, may well be rudely catapulted to the forefront of a hostile press if there are heavy handed reactions to criticism, or even demonstrations that need explaining. Public relations companies like Ogilvies have been offering advice, but for Hu, one of the world’s most wooden media performers, the Olympics are going to offer a huge challenge if things do start to go wrong.

Perhaps at such a point, one of the newly emerging leaders of the next generation, Xi Jinping or Li Keqiang, will be given their chance to make an impact, presented to the foreign press with the opportunity to gain a leadership reputation within, and beyond China. But if they were to perform badly, of course, then the likelihood is that they would be fed to the wolves. High level politics in China was never for the feint of heart.

Faster or slower?

The Olympics will also be an opportunity to look a little harder at the forces at work in the Communist Party. These can be broadly split between those who want more reform, faster, and those who would prefer to slow things down and seek a model of development more in line with China’s specific circumstances over the last half century. The slower tendency is uneasy about the rise of entrepreneurs, wants the Party to take stronger lines on international issues like Taiwan, and to forge a sense of a strong, unified country going into the twenty-first century.

Both sides are unified by a pretty strong nationalism, something the Olympics will only enflame. And both know that the greatest threats to stability come from within – the inequality, lack of resources, environmental challenges, and the fact that fundamental decisions need to be made about political reform, following on from all the economic change over the last two decades. The debate is, however, about how this reform is carried out, and when. This will rage long after the final gold medals have been awarded, and the world’s press has moved on.

As a group of people, the Politburo standing committee has more power than any other in the history either of the People’s Republic or of the Communist Party. This might explain the signs of a genuine tussle before the congress last October over who should be elevated, with rumours that there were not one, but for the first time two elections within the top leadership over both who should get in, and then which Politburo ranking they should be given.

The previous Politburo were technocrats to a man – no women made it into the Standing Committee – with only one educated abroad. In this Politburo, there are at least two with degrees in economics and political science. None have been educated abroad, though, and this raises questions about their level of internationalisation and ability to relate to, and understand, the outside world.

Elite or popular?

The two figures of most interest to observers, inside and outside China, are Xi, the former Shanghai Party Secretary, and Li, from the north east Liaoning province. Ranking fourth and fifth in the Politburo line up, most eyes will be on them in the build up to the next congress in 2012, when the leadership transition is due to happen.

Xi is a princeling, son of one of the revolutionary leaders, who was instrumental in China’s first steps to reform and opening up in the 1980s. He has many positives. A good, and reasonably clean record as Party Secretary in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, two forward looking coastal areas; he has a glamourous wife; a doctorate in political science from the elite Qinghua University, and is a good media performer. His Politburo portfolio covers the same areas as Hu’s when he was first promoted in 1993: Head of the Party School and of the General Secretariat, which makes personnel decisions.

Li is a grass roots worker, active in the less developed Gansu and then Liaoning provinces, known as an efficient economic manager, though viewed as somewhat nervous, and less media friendly than Xi. But showiness is not the most valued quality in Chinese politics. In the late 1990s, Li was Party Secretary of Henan during the AIDS scandal, where infected blood was sold. So he has skeletons. But he has one big plus – he looks after the massive constituency of the less privileged, the huge number of poor and disenfranchised. Having him in charge would send a message that the Party is remaining true to its roots, looking after the underclass, and not being run by a new, and remote, central leadership.

Xi and Li could be said to represent the elitist and the popularist arms of the Party respectively. On the one hand, Xi, the Party creature, associated with the developed coastal economies, a man almost born to the manor. On the other, Li, the man who has worked himself up, a statement that in modern China, anything is possible for anyone, and there are no barriers, beyond fidelity to the Party.

One thing seems clear. The days of senior elite leaders stitching up a succession are over. Xi, Li, and any one else in the frame for 2012 will need to demonstrate independently that they have the right level of popular support to secure the main job. No one figure can broker this deal alone. There will be complex, delicate negotiations in which a number of factors will need to be taken into account – economic performance, support for industrial development, making a mark in international diplomacy, even the success of the Olympics and the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010. A leader who is involved in most of these will be in good shape to claim the right to rule after 2012.

Party people

Xi and Li remain in pole position, but this is predicated on the big ifs – if the economy develops well, if China does not become unstable, if there are no major external impacts that push the country off line. Should any of these happen, all bets are off. Not likely, but not impossible either.

The current leadership is deeply aware of this. What unites all of them is a profound desire and commitment to see the Communist Party remain in power. They are all children of the Party, and owe it everything they have.

As we get closer to 2012, Xi and Li will become more visible abroad, and we will get to know them a lot better. They are grappling with massive, global issues. We might not be very aware of them now but, like the leaders of the United States, of European countries, India or Russia, they hold a large part of the future prosperous development of the world in their hands. And whatever we think of contemporary China, we should wish them well, as they stand on the podium, on that early August night later this year.