The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
China Unveils New Leadership; Reformers Absent

Seven new leaders for China. Seven identical dark suits, white shirts, and red ties (save one) stalked across the crimson stage at the Great Hall of the people on Thursday. The new members of the Politburo Standing Committee are older, on average, than their predecessors. They are conservative, they are all men, and they are not, analysts agree, interested in political reform.

Three—party chief Xi Jinping, expected prime minister Li Keqiang, and former vice prime minister Wang Qishan—are seen as cautious reformers. The others—Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, and Zhang Gaoli—are conservative by reputation.

Reuters reports on the most pressing problem facing the new leaders: “Vice-Premier Wang, the most reform-minded in the line-up, has been given the role of fighting widespread graft, identified by both Xi and outgoing President Hu Jintao as the biggest danger faced by the party and the state.”

Corruption in the military will be the biggest test for the new Politburo, writes Jane Perlez:

In his book [“Why the Liberation Army Can Win"], Colonel Liu [Mingfu], a former professor at China’s National Defense University [and influential member of the "princeling" generation], wrote that the army had not been tested in decades and had grown complacent. “As a military that has not fought a war for 30 years, the People’s Liberation Army has reached a stage in which its biggest danger and No. 1 foe is corruption,” he wrote. . . .

In his new work, the colonel drew a parallel with 1894, when China’s forces were swiftly defeated by a rapidly modernizing Japan, even though the Chinese were equipped with expensive ships from Europe. Historians often attribute the defeat to corruption.

Insiders believe the new Politburo and the powerful Central Military Commission, headed by Xi Jinping, will do little to tackle corruption. There’s a high-profile case against a former deputy director of the logistics department, Gu Junshan, who made enormous profits off land sales and gave his friends expensive homes meant for retiring officers. A handful of such cases will mark the extent of the government’s crackdown on corrupt leaders, an the bigger fish will likely escape notice.

Reform-minded leaders like Guangdong party boss Wang Yang and party organization leader Li Yuanchao were overlooked for top jobs, as was the lone female candidate. Analysts think Wang will be a top contender for the next changing of the guard in five years.

For now, China’s elders and Party leaders have set up a new Politburo that appears likely to tread water on the biggest issues facing the country: an economic slowdown, corruption, and a leadership disconnected from the people. Perhaps the new Seven can manage the country through a smooth five years until the next party congress in 2017. Then again, events largely outside their control—like an increased American presence in Asia, territorial disputes with neighbors, a sluggish global economy, and freewheeling corruption among even the upper leadership—might make this a very interesting few years for China.

Published on November 15, 2012 12:18 pm