Monday, November 26, 2012

Don't expect a Chinese Gorbachev

By Wenran Jiang, Ottawa Citizen

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For those who followed the U.S. presidential elections up to last week, the intense horse race had clear rules to follow on how one candidate can win. When it comes to China's leadership transition though, the general public had very little clue who China's new leaders were until the seven men, called the Politburo Standing Committee members, walked onto the stage to meet the press in Beijing Thursday.

But this is already progress in the context of Chinese history: the latest once-in-a-decade leadership transition is only the second time power was peacefully and institutionally transferred in more than 100 years since the Qing dynasty was overthrown in 1911.

Since then, Chinese politics went through civil wars, foreign invasion, the establishment of a new People's Republic and the Chinese Communist Party's struggle to transfer itself from a revolutionary party to a governing institution in a series of turbulent events such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Jiang Zemin, who was hand-picked by Deng Xiaoping after the 1989 Tiananmen student protests, finally put in place a collective leadership structure with top leaders serving in five-year intervals but no more than two terms. And he managed to make a regular transfer of power to Hu Jintao in 2002 for the first time in modern Chinese history.

Hu Jintao's 10-year tenure was marked by his rigid and low-key leadership style. While trying to promote more equal distribution of income, fight corruption and change course to a more sustainable economic development model, Hu's achievements were limited in all these areas. Preferring stability and economic growth to political liberalization and drastic reform, Hu has left most of the challenges he faced to his successors.
But Hu managed to put his own signature on the leadership transfer rules at the end. For both Deng and Jiang, it was a three-step process for handing over power to the next generation: leadership of the party, then leadership of the government, and finally leadership of the powerful CCP Military Commission — a total of a two-year process. Hu now chose to step down not only from his position as the general secretary of the CCP, but also as chairman of its Military Commission, cutting the entire power transfer process to only a few months.
However, the new leadership structure clearly emphasizes continuity. The core group of seven men, reduced from nine, is the product of the largest political party system on Earth (with 82 million members). The new CCP General Secretary Xi (family name and pronounced See) Jingping and his colleagues all steadily climbed in the ranks of the party hierarchy over the decades.

Xi emerged as an acceptable figure among the key power broker groups. His father was a former vice premier in the first generation of PRC leaders. Once the head of China's most modern city, Shanghai, Xi was little known to the public, but his wife, an iconic singer, was a far more famous figure among ordinary Chinese.

The CCP also preferred more senior and established politicians who headed the country's mega cities. Two prominent candidates, the CCP Organizational Department head Li Yuanchao and the party secretary of Guangdong province Wang Yang, were excluded from the new lineup, prompting speculations that the new leadership group is more conservative in orientation.

But there is really no convincing evidence that CCP is going to undertake any dramatic reforms if either or both Li and Wang is/are included in the new Politburo Standing Committee. Rather than expecting a Chinese Gorbachev who will take China on a path to western-style democracy, as many in the West tend to at the time of China's leadership change, it's best to let the Chinese society manage its own future through its internal dynamics.

And there is indication that the new powerful group has recognized and openly acknowledged some of the life-threatening challenges the CCP must confront. Xi identified them in his opening remarks to the world as the new leader: corruption among party members; officials who are far away and removed from people they are supposed to serve; widening inequality; damage to the environment, among other things.

Xi displayed a remarkably relaxed style in his press conference Thursday. But it remains to be seen if he can lead the new team to effectively tackle those serious problems he listed.

And even a bigger challenge for the new boss in Beijing is whether the CPP can muddle through for another 10 years with sustainable economic growth without carrying out fundamental political reform.

Wenran Jiang is a political science professor at the University of Alberta and director of the Canada-China Energy & Environment Forum.

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