mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Trouble at the Top in China

The stakes are much higher for China’s upcoming leadership change than they appear at first glance. The country’s economy is beginning to slow after a decades-long meteoric rise, and both domestic factionalism and greatly worsening foreign relations with have set the stage for political unrest. Theoretically, a technocratic consensus is handling the power handoff, but the reality is far messier and more brutal, as we have seen with the Bo Xilai trial and the recent attacks on Wen Jiabao’s once-clean image.

China’s former leaders remain crucial players in the political game and are heavily involved behind the scenes, jockeying to push proteges into positions of power. The two primary players this time around are outgoing President Hu Jintao and his predecessor, the 86-year-old Jiang Zemin. The Washington Post has more:

Both were plucked from relative obscurity by Deng after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Deng hoped a clearer succession plan would add stability to the system; he appointed Jiang as his immediate successor and elevated Hu so that he could later take Jiang’s place.

Jiang built his camp of allies — called the “Shanghai gang” — drawing from his old base as the city’s party chief. He was known for a showman’s flair that remains rare among the party’s mostly wooden personalities.

Hu is more subdued. People who have met him describe a bland bookworm with a photographic memory, a stiff smile and an overriding sense of caution. His faction is often referred to as “tuanpai,” for the Communist Youth League he once led and mined for allies.

With Jiang Zemin back in the game, Hu might seek to change the nature of the game itself, establishing precedent and norms that limit the power exercised by former leaders. That could be a more lasting legacy than merely pushing successors into power, and it also seems rather self denying for a man whose drive and relentless ambition took him all the way to the top of the Communist Party.

If Hu isn’t possessed of a sudden monastic desire to shun politics and cultivate his garden, he might stay on as chairman of the Central Military Commission and exert power from there, like Jiang Zemin before him. Reuters goes deeper:

Hu currently heads the Communist Party, the government and the military and is due to hand over all three positions to Xi, his current vice president, though not at the same time. He hands over the party job this month, the presidency next March and there is no clear timing for when the military post changes hands.

With the new political leadership just days away from being officially unveiled at a party congress, this underlines how the process of handing over all the instruments of power is still evolving in China, which has nuclear arms and boasts a 2.3 million-strong military.

It isn’t just personalities. China hands say that Hu has favored a slowdown in the pace of economic reform, streaming resources to state owned firms and the powerful, conservative forces behind them. Jiang, it is said, thinks this has been a mistake, and wants to return to a more aggressive transition to a market economy with more dynamic and innovative private firms given the green light.

Outside of Pyongyang, there’s no place in the world where the politics are harder to track than in China.  But as tensions inevitably rise in the tight-knit world of the Party elite, we’re likely to have more moments like the Bo Xilai affair when the backstage infighting spills out into public view. And, increasingly, China will have to make clear policy decisions that stress the Party consensus even more. China watchers are going to have plenty to look at as the country’s growing problems (‘contradictions’ as the Marxists would say) pull Party factions in different directions.

Features Icon
© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service