A Conversation on China's Leadership Transition
Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, Stratfor cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.
Brian Genchur: Hello, I'm Brian Genchur today with Stratfor's Vice President of International Projects Jennifer Richmond. She also happens to be one of our foremost China experts, and today I'll be asking her about that country's leadership transition.
Jennifer, how does a country like China — that doesn't have elections, that we're very opaque about the actual internal structure — how does it choose its leadership?
Jennifer Richmond: China's leaders are groomed years and years in advance, so actually Jiang Zemin was responsible for handpicking Xi Jinping. A lot of times the leaders that we see rise to the Politburo Standing Committee have had experience in provincial leadership positions before they actually come to the central government. And this is a pretty common trend. But what's interesting about this transition is that we kind of see this as the end of what we call the Deng dynasty, so Deng Xiaoping was responsible for picking Jiang Zemin, his immediate successor, and even picking Hu Jintao. Xi Jinping on the other hand was actually handpicked by Jiang Zemin. This is a significant change. The other thing that's interesting about this succession is that really we've seen a lot of scandal prior to the succession, mainly with Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai. This has really done a lot to kind of reshuffle and shift around the powers that be, who is going to choose the successors, who is going to be in the final lineup. Now the final lineup always shifts, you know, we never know really until the Party Congress concludes. However, this has been particularly contentious, in so far as we have seen reformers and conservatives engaging in intense backroom negotiations, and this is something that will not really allay until the final meeting — we expect that to be Nov. 15 — when the final lineup is approved and actually walks out on stage. So the transition really remains opaque. But one of the areas that we need to be watching in addition to the Party is also the Central Military Commission.
Brian: Now a few of the positions in this military commission have already been changed out? Or what's going on?
Jennifer: We have seen some definite shifts with the Central Military Commission. We still don't know who is going to be in the final leadup to the Politburo and more important the Politburo Standing Committee. We have some guesses but it's shifting as I said as a result of the backroom negotiations. However, we have a more definitive view of what the Central Military Commission is going to look like. Most recently, they mentioned who is going to be — or they appointed, excuse me — the two vice chairmen. These are two very important positions underneath the chairman, who is also usually the Party secretary and the president of the state. So the two vice chairman are set to be Fan Changlong and Xu Qiliang. Now what's interesting is Xu Qiliang is the commander of the air force, and now he's being elevated to the vice chairman position. What's interesting about this is that he's the first vice chairman that is not an army general. So this really indicates to us that the government is very focused on trying to diversify between the armed forces. Now Fan Changlong is interesting because he is considered to be doing what we call a double jump. And what's interesting about that is that he's not an incumbent on the Central Military Commission. So he's moved from a position straight to the top of the leadership of the Central Military Commission. There are three people in the Central Military Commission that we knew were going to stay on through this transition. He's not one of them. So his appointment suggests some very intense backroom negotiations — backroom wrangling — going on. We're not really sure what those negotiations entail but what is important to note is with this backroom wrangling that the Central Military Commission is extremely important to the Party and it is extremely important to various factions that they remain influential in the lineup of the Central Military Commission.
Brian: And how important is this commission to the actual leadership of the country? What role does it play in terms of setting, for example, economic policy? Does it, or how exactly is this dynamic working?
Jennifer: Well that's interesting. The Central Military Commission obviously isn't given as much focus as the Party but it is incredibly important for several reasons. If you remember Deng Xiaoping, he actually never had a greater role than in his role as the chairman of the Military Commission. Although he was the paramount leader, his only official role was really the chairman of the Central Military Commission. So a lot has changed since Deng Xiaoping was in power, but the role of the Central Military Commission is still extremely important and it's becoming actually more so now, particularly as we see China moving and becoming more global. We look at the South China Sea, the East China Sea disputes. We look at energy supplies; I mean the Military Commission or the military itself is actually the defender of China's energy supplies. So we're seeing them become more and more vocal in China's foreign policy and more and more vocal domestically as well as externally, internationally.
Brian: Now, along with China's new role in the world, so to speak, where do we see this new leadership generation taking China? Do we expect massive reforms? Do we expect a continuation of the status quo? Where does it go?
Jennifer: Well that's — there absolutely is a demand for reform right now. But one of the problems within China is that there're so many vested interests that it makes reform hard to accomplish. So we see a genuine push for reform, but whether or not they're going to be successful is another question. And moreover, if they are going to push for reform, which in some way we expect that they will, they're going to want to do so slowly and incrementally. But the problem is the external and the internal problems as they mount up, they may not be able to do so in the time frame that they choose. Most recently, one of the rumors that we've seen coming out of China is that there's this push by Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping to bring in some very limited elections for the Politburo. Now the bigger question really is: Who is choosing the contenders for this election? So even if this really amounts to very little, the point is that they are talking about reform because they really need to boost their legitimacy. This is extremely important.
Brian: And taking it out just one step further from this internal politicking, where does this leave China's role in the world? Is it going to branch out? How do the United States, South Korea, Japan…how do they view these transitions? Is it an opportunity? Is it a threat? And is China concerned about any of that?
Jennifer: China right now when it comes down to it is not really concerned about how the rest of the world looks at them. Really its main priority is control within China. The main priority of the Party is to maintain control, and if there is going to be reform, to be able to be the one to lead the reform. So really their biggest concern is internal unrest, and that's really important. What won't change regardless of the reform that happens within the Party, within the state is the Central Military's role globally. Energy is still going to be important whether or not they have political reforms. The South China Sea, the East China Sea, these are all major transport routes. These are all going to continue to be important to China, so regardless of what domestic internal changes we see, we're still going to see a continued emphasis on the military commission, both to help maintain control within China as well as externally outside of China.
Brian: All right, and we'll have to leave it there. Thank you very much, Jennifer. And for much more on the Chinese leadership transition, please visit Stratfor.com. Thank you for watching.