Shaun Breslin
Professor Shaun Breslin
Former Associate Fellow, Asia Programme

The emergence of a new leader in China is a rare occurrence; just think how few people have led China since the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949.

And it’s notable that Chinese politics and history is still divided by different generations of leaders – 'Mao's China' or 'Deng’s China' (even though Deng left the formal position of party leader for others to fill) or more recently 'the Hu and Wen era'. To add to interest in to the now once in a decade leadership transition, the opaque nature of decision making in China leaves us – well, me at least – feeding on rumours and guesswork about how the internecine machinations of elite politics are panning out. And it’s fair to say that murder, corruption and the fall of Bo Xilai have only served to add to the political intrigue surrounding the 18th Party Congress.

Yet in some respects, while the identity of China's leaders and their policy preference clearly remains important – and not just for China – who is the top leader matters less than it once did. This is not a political system where a new leader can simply impose themselves and their agenda at will. Rather it is one that reflects a balance between different interests and demands – and indeed, the outgoing leadership seem to have been constrained in their ability to act decisively by the lack of a firm consensus over the best way forward. 

Xi Jinping's emergence as the apparent heir apparent in 2007 appeared to be a result of compromise; he was the most acceptable to the largest number of interests. Fierce internal debates over who should join Xi and Li Keqiang (slated to take the premiership in spring 2013) on the party’s Politburo Standing Committee indicate that these interests have continued to abut against each other in the intervening years. It would seem strange to expect these competing positions to simply dissolve at the 18th Party Congress and leave the field free for Xi to implement a paradigm shift.

No Change Just Yet

We will get some indication of the dominant wind of Chinese politics by who is in the Politburo and who isn’t. The non-appointment of Wang Yang, for example, would leave the standing committee short of one of the louder voices in favour of greater economic liberalisation. But looking back historically, despite an official rhetoric of change at the 2002 Party Congress that put Hu Jintao at the apex of the party, it took another two years to see what this change should attain. An official report on the Party’s 'ruling capacity' in September 2004 pointed to a breaking of the umbilical cord that connected the party to the people. There was an urgent need to rebuild this relationship by combating corruption and implementing political reform that gave the people a stake in the system and allowed their voices to be heard. This was a 'life and death'issue for the party. These sentiments were echoed in a report following the 2007 Congress that called for 'comprehensive political system reform plan' to be undertaken by 2020.

The Need for Reform

The need for political reform, then, has been widely recognized by the Chinese leadership for a number of years. This does not mean weakening party power, but actually strengthening it: making it more effective and efficient, and also more legitimate and trustworthy in the eyes of the people. Today, the tenure of more Chinese officials is subject to popular will than was the case when Hu took power. Yet little has really changed. Premier Wen Jiabao has expressed his frustration and sorrow that the political reform agenda has not been advanced under his watch, with the finger of blame pointed by others at powerful vested interests within the state system that benefit from the status quo and see no advantage in pushing for change.

China's leaders are acutely aware that the social fabric has become stretched in a number of areas. They see numerous dots of discontent across the country – typically manifestations of anger at specific local issues rather than more fundamental opposition to the political system per se. A key task for the new leadership is to prevent these dots from becoming joined up to create a new momentum for political change. The battle against corruption is another major task for the party, and related again to its ability to connect with and convince the general public.

Economy Comes First

Yet any need for political reform is likely to be relegated to secondary importance behind the primary task of managing the economy. It is not clear how far economic growth is slowing, if at all, with conflicting signals on an almost daily basis. But even if the rosiest of predictions come true, then there is still a major job to do in shifting the basis of growth more to domestic consumption and away from investment (and exports). This would include important banking and other financial reforms that could have a detrimental impact on those in the state sector who have done rather well from the existing system. 

With powerful voices from the past (and not just the immediate past) continuing to have a say over the direction of policy, and with both political and further economic reform opposed by key interests, we should perhaps not expect too much of Xi Jinping just yet. The political system might require a strong leader to push through the web of interests to implement further reforms, but it is the very same political system that currently prevents this type of leader from emerging.