Deciphering Beijing’s Transition

Deciphering Beijing’s Transition

China’s Communist Party Congress will affirm new top leaders, but little is known about their selection or how they will guide the country, says CFR’s Jerome Cohen.

November 8, 2012 8:55 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

The Eighteenth Chinese Communist Party Congress opens on Thursday amid murky signals about the Chinese leadership transition, says CFR’s Jerome A. Cohen. He says that of the top seven political leaders who make up the Standing Committee of the party, Xi Jinping, the designated next president, and Li Keqiang, the designated premier, are known, but "we don’t really know what they stand for, what they’re likely to do." Cohen says no matter who was elected U.S. president this week, it "isn’t going to make much difference because every president, when the political rhetoric is over, has to come to grips with this rising, unknown difficult phenomenon" of China.

Two days after Americans voted to reelect Barack Obama as president, the Eighteenth Chinese Communist Party Congress will convene in Beijing, from which a new Chinese political leadership will emerge. What are your thoughts about this coincidence?

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The processes by which the two governments select their leaders could not be more different. In Beijing, two days before the opening of the Congress that will select the seven top people, the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, very little is known. We know the identities of two of the seven: Xi Jinping, who next year is likely to be the next president of China, and Li Keqiang, who is slated to become premier. But we don’t really know what they stand for, what they’re likely to do, and we don’t know how they’ve been selected.

What about the other five?

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It’s even murkier because it is not clear who they will be. There are still discussions going on, as far as we can tell. We don’t know who the decision-makers are, who are the horse traders in deciding who’s on and off the seven-person Standing Committee. Of course, all the contenders for the final five spots, even if they lose, will be on the broader twenty-five-member Politburo itself. But what do these people really stand for? Are they simply very intelligent, very cautious political bureaucrats who have risen through a variety of challenges, never really revealing what they think, always trying to pander to the policies of the higher-ups? And once they reach the inner circle, is there any way of knowing what they’re going to do? Of course, in every government, it’s hard to predict how a presidential candidate, for example, will behave as president.

Why don’t you talk first a bit about the two who are definite, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang?

Xi Jinping is a so-called "princeling." His father, former vice premier Xi Zhongxun, was a famous leader. Although he could be said to have grown up initially with the Communist equivalent of a silver spoon, he spent a long time out in the boondocks trying to carve out his own reputation for doing things without parental assistance. He’s an intelligent, balanced person, well-educated, highly experienced, and virtually unknown – and perhaps unknowable. Predictions for him include, "Once he gets confident in office, he’s likely to be an intelligent law reformer and political institution reformer." Another view, and more likely to happen, is he’s likely to be a disappointing bureaucrat, some say in the model of former Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev – someone who was not able to meet the challenges that a highly developing country is confronted by.

Li Keqiang is significant in one respect certainly. He is the first law graduate to assume a high office in the People’s Republic. There’s never been, as far as I know, any law school graduate in the Standing Committee in the Politburo. This man is highly intelligent. His classmates at Peking University Law School, where he graduated in 1982, give him high marks, although devoted to politics even at that time. Since then, he’s shown little evidence of his legal training. He’s shown no real proclivity for helping to reform a legal system that badly needs to be reformed. He has been highly political in some cases. People say he shows insensitivity to human rights. But again, all these people are enshrined in mystery and very, very cautious about saying anything publicly.

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How much influence does President Hu Jintao maintain?

There is an ongoing negotiation among the leaders who have at least nominally retired, those who are about to retire, and those who are about to ascend to office. It’s kind of a three-cornered struggle, or bargaining process, and it’s all behind very, very closed doors where rumors emerge of a very uncertain nature. It’s a preposterous way for the leaders of such an advanced and prominent country to be selected.

Even if one disregards the desirability of consulting the people of the country about who their governors are going to be, just from the point of view of an efficient way of arranging things, these people have not moved very far beyond the selection of the elite under the Manchu Dynasty. And when you get into murder plots involving one of the members of the Politburo, Bo Xilai, who was hoping to be among the seven members of the Standing Committee, and the poisoning of someone [Neil Heywood] said to be a foreign spy by Bo’s wife, who feared exposure of their corruption, this is a little much.

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Do we have any sense of how relations between the United States and China will be in the next several years?

The Chinese are confronted by a problem similar to ours. People worried, "What if Mitt Romney won? What will our China policy be, compared to if Obama won?" But experience over the last forty years suggests that it probably isn’t going to make much difference because every president, when the political rhetoric is over, has to come to grips with this rising, unknown difficult phenomenon: China.

And the Chinese have a similar problem. They know they need the United States very, very much. They know they have interests that seem to clash rather sharply in some respects. And they know whoever takes over has to be cognizant of the complexity of the relationship and the desirability of not only sustaining it, but also improving it.

You have been very critical of China’s human rights record. Can you speak to that?

The Chinese are faced with a broad range of challenges, not least of which is what to do about the rule of law. What is going to happen to a growing demand in the country for human rights, not just to close the gap, which is huge now, between rich and poor, but also to try to create institutions that will provide outlets for the very large number of grievances publicly expressed – often in violent forms – that seem to plague China? The leaders either have to continue to rely on repression, which seems to be their immediate weapon of choice, or they have to decide to give more vent to the increasing steam from below.

In the mid-1980s, in Taiwan, you had a Kuomintang Nationalist Party dictatorship that was confronted year after year by more and more demands for freedom, for democratic process, for liberal institutions. And they kept repressing them. Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, knowing he was quite ill and didn’t have that much time to go, decided that they couldn’t go on relying on repression. They had to start a process that would gradually open up the system and give greater participation to the rights-conscious people who were increasing every year in number. When I first went to Taiwan in 1961, he was in charge of the secret police. He was known to be a vicious repressor of all democratic instincts, especially those where people were trying to say they wanted to be independent of the Kuomintang mainland Chinese rule. And yet when he died in 1988, I found myself saying quite nice things about him, because in the years just before his death, he had initiated a process that has now – we can see a generation later – led to the first democratic rule of law society that the Chinese have ever really spawned. It is more democratic than Singapore and eons ahead of anything produced on the mainland.

Are any of the current leaders advocates of a more liberal policy?

You don’t get to the top of this greasy pole by advocating liberal political reform, human rights, and rule of law. We never know until a person gets to the pinnacle how he’s going to behave. Nobody knew in 1956 that Nikita S. Khrushchev was going to adopt a policy known as de-Stalinization. I had thought Khrushchev was another running dog of Stalin. Well he was, and he hated it. And when he got to power three years after Stalin’s death, he initiated an opening process. It didn’t go as far as many liberal reformers wanted, but it was a surprise to people, including the Chinese who were present at the Twentieth Party Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. Nobody knew that Mikhail Gorbachev, despite the fact that he was known to be a law school graduate, was going to engage in perestroika. He may not have known it himself.

The New York Times scrutinizes this fellow Wang Yang, the Communist Party secretary of Guangdong province, right next to Hong Kong. Wang Yang, from time to time, has sounded like he might be the next generation’s liberal reformer among the party elite. Until about a year ago, he made considerable noises to support that idea and occasionally engaged in some enlightened policies. In the last year or so, though, he’s been rather quiet, especially since the fall of Bo Xilai, who was often seen to be his opposite number and rival. He has been trying to behave himself so he would look just as staid and boring as the other candidates – innocuous, reliable, a team player, a consensus builder; not somebody who is colorfully going to stick his neck out and try to engage in democratic experimentation.


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