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Nov 14, 2012 | 11:30 GMT

China's Leadership Transition: Reframing the Party

China's Leadership Transition
Stratfor
Summary

Editor's Note: This is the third installment of a series on China's political future. Click to read part one and part two.

As China's 18th Party Congress draws to a close and the new Politburo Standing Committee is revealed, international and Chinese news media will be looking for signs, however oblique, that the Communist Party is on the road to reform. What reform means in the Chinese context remains unclear, but that may be exactly what Beijing wants.

China is approaching the end of a two-decade economic cycle, and the country's leaders are finding that the pillars of Party legitimacy that Deng Xiaoping outlined in the 1980s are crumbling. Slowing economic growth, rising regional inequality and widespread corruption have undermined Deng's ideal of economic pragmatism and the promise of prosperity for ordinary citizens. China's growing military power is challenging Beijing's narrative of "peaceful rise." And a string of high-profile political scandals have laid waste to the image of a unified, foresighted Party leadership. In this environment, maintaining control requires that the Party open itself in image — and perhaps, to a limited extent, in practice — to ideas of political, social and economic reform.

Over the past two months, readers of Chinese news in English-language media have been inundated with discussions about the question of reform within the Chinese Communist Party. The discussions have been vague at best regarding the nature, scope or likelihood of reform after the Fifth Generation of leaders assumes office next March. But for the most part, Xi Jinping, the incoming president and Party secretary, has been depicted as a forward-looking leader. Whether pointing to Xi's experiences during the Cultural Revolution; his service in Zhejiang, a relatively liberal and developed coastal province; or his recent meeting with the reform-minded economist Hu Deping (the son of a former Party secretary, Hu Yaobang, whose ouster in 1987 and death in 1989 in part triggered the student protests in Tiananmen Square), these discussions all frame Xi as some variety of reformer — bold and ambitious, cautious or deeply constrained. Even the Dalai Lama says he expects Xi to bring changes to the Communist Party.

In truth, very little is known about Xi and his fellow Fifth Generation leaders — as people or as policymakers — and what is known has been carefully crafted by Chinese state media. In both Chinese- and English-language media, discussions about Xi must be understood in this context. Wittingly or not, news reports on Xi and his colleagues are part of an image-building process for the Communist Party.

Whether the Party can or will change is unclear, especially considering the premium placed by China's leadership on continuity and stability and the lengths Beijing has gone to over more than two decades to systematically prevent radical discontinuity or the rise of charismatic leaders. For now, what is critical is the image. As demonstrated by the recent wave of reports on Xi, the Fifth Generation and concepts such as "intra-Party democracy" and "consultative democracy," the Communist Party is increasingly aware that its survival over the next decade will depend on its ability to rebrand itself for both Chinese and international audiences. Embattled by weak external demand, a bloated domestic economy and a growing sense among the Chinese populace that official corruption has become endemic to every level of government, the Party is attempting to represent itself as an institution working to reform.

Party and Democracy

On Nov. 6, Reuters ran an exclusive report, citing anonymous sources with "ties to the Party leadership," that claimed that President Hu Jintao and Xi (currently the vice president) have been jointly pushing for the introduction of limited elections in the selection process for new Politburo members. The Politburo is the 25-member Party organ from which the Politburo Standing Committee, China's highest governing body, is chosen.

The article said the two leaders, who are not considered to be close associates, have proposed naming up to 20 percent more candidates for Politburo membership than there were slots. This would allow the roughly 200-member Central Committee — which is itself selected through limited local "elections," with roughly 8 percent more candidates than available slots — to vote as many as five Politburo candidates out. The report, along with a wave of commentary that quickly filtered through other Western media outlets, called the proposed changes "historic" and "very, very important." It also noted Hu and Xi's strong interest in presenting themselves as reformers.

The Party Congress convened Nov. 8, and by Nov. 10 it was clear that no substantial changes would be made to the selection process for the Central Committee, the Politburo or the Politburo Standing Committee.

The absence of change was not surprising, especially considering the cautious tone of the Congress' proceedings so far and the all-around conservative tenor of Hu's administration. What is interesting is the existence of the report itself — more specifically, that an article intended for English readers appeared two days before the Congress convened, claiming that China's incoming and outgoing presidents were united in their desire for greater intra-Party democracy.

The report was followed by a rash of articles on "consultative democracy" (which Hu mentioned once in his 64-page report to the Congress) and, in Chinese-language news and social media, a flood of discussions, some praising and some critical, about a rural delegate who was brought to tears when reciting a poem dedicated to Hu. As a Xinhua article on the tearful delegate pointed out, online commentators failed to note the delegate's proposed reforms, which included allowing workers to retain pensions when changing jobs and cities.

The Core Problem

Taken together, these reports — along with the numerous articles dissecting Xi's background in search of clues about his policy outlook — suggest that the Party is responding to China's changing internal and external environments by positioning itself, however tentatively, as an organization on the path toward reform. The public's traditional sense that corruption, graft and inefficiency were primarily local phenomena has been undermined by two years of high-profile political scandals (such as Railway Minister Liu Zhijun's ouster and Bo Xilai's downfall), rising domestic and international criticism of the current administration for exacerbating problems it was supposed to solve, and the growth of social media platforms such as Weibo as ways of expressing and mobilizing public sentiment. The Party that Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao will hand over is increasingly seen as immobile, reactionary and inflexible — not only on the periphery but also at its core. In part, this is because the Party has continued to ground its legitimacy on Deng's original pillars, even as radical social, economic, military and international changes have tested the limits of his model.

The ongoing transition offers China's leaders an opportunity to adjust public perceptions of the Party, if not to reinvigorate the Party itself. The near-total uncertainty regarding Xi's personal and policy preferences makes him an effective tool for buying the Party time, which is precisely what it needs right now. By promising reform, however limited in scale or cautious in tone, the Party may be able to assuage public anger long enough to achieve the economic and social rebalancing seen as necessary to ensuring long-term regime stability. 

However, in doing so the Party would walk a fine line. Even minor democratic reforms can alleviate grassroots social pressures. At the same time, as demonstrated by the fall of China's last dynasty, the Qing, reform can easily precipitate — rather than counteract — dynastic decline and political change. When the Qing introduced democratic reforms — first during the Hundred Days of Reform in 1898 and later through the New Policies program in 1905 — they did so not to implement formal democracy but to preserve the regime by re-energizing public support. In the course of rebuilding its public image, the Communist Party must avoid the same slippery slope.

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