Power Shift in China – Part III

The selection process of China’s top leaders is kept secret, preventing citizens or ambitious subordinates from taking advantage of divisions. A faux united front may seem cautious and uninspiring as special interests grow, taking entrenched positions. This YaleGlobal series assesses the challenges confronting China as it prepares for leadership transition in October. In the third and final article of the series, China expert Susan Shirk analyzes the evolving leadership-selection process in China, offering alternatives that promote openness. She is chair of the 21st Century China Program at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, University of California, San Diego, and a former US deputy assistant secretary of state with the Clinton administration. It’s human nature for individual politicians to rally support and citizens to select favorites. China’s leaders, recognizing that corruption and inequality are threats to the regime, may back reforms, which could favor foreign investors and large numbers of Chinese while weakening state industries, elites and other vested interests. An open process won’t curtail nationalism, Shirk cautions, and could even make China more assertive on the world stage. – YaleGlobal

Power Shift in China – Part III

Ending secretive selection of China’s top leaders doesn’t guarantee peaceful rise
Susan Shirk
Friday, April 20, 2012

Media politician, street anger: China’s Premier Wen Jiabao on televised sympathy tour to quake-struck Sichuan (top); ultranationalist Chinese denounce Japan over territorial dispute

NEW HAVEN: The spectacular fall of one of China’s leading politicians, the Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, reminds foreign policy watchers about the uncertainty that lurks behind the impressive gates of Zhongnanhai. As we look forward to the next decade, the greatest uncertainty – and the greatest risk – in Sino-US relations is what happens in Chinese domestic politics. Domestic politics drives foreign policy in all political systems. In China, national politicians have to worry not just about winning the next election, but about keeping the Chinese Communist Party in power.

Behind the headlines we read every day about China’s rise is a country with a political leadership that is extremely insecure, constantly fretting that it might be reaching the end of its reign. It’s also a country with a dysfunctional policy process dominated by powerful interest groups, many of them within the state itself.

The biggest danger isn’t China’s growing economic or military strength. It’s the internal fragility that could drive it to make threats that leaders can’t back down from for fear of loss of internal support – and the possibility of overexpansion, driven by parochial interest groups that would benefit in the short term. I worry that the nature of the Chinese political system challenges the restrained approach to foreign policy laid down by Deng Xiaoping during the 1980s, making it hard for the country to sustain its peaceful rise.

Insecurity has been particularly acute since 1989 Tiananmen crisis. Confronting protracted demonstrations in 130-plus cities, the leadership split over how to handle dissent, and the People’s Liberation Army use of force saved the regime.

China today isn’t seething with unrest. Despite the impressive number – 180,000 in 2010 by the government’s own count – most demonstrations are local, small in scale. But jittery leaders track demonstrations closely, probably more worried than they need to be.

A more serious risk to the regime is splits at the top of the Chinese Communist Party. Leninist authoritarian systems fall from the top down. China is ruled by a collective leadership of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee. Since the Tiananmen crisis, the nine have worked hard to maintain a public façade of unity, successfully hiding from public view the competition that inevitably exists at the top. They hide the contest for power behind a veil of secrecy because they fear that knowledge of divisions at the top might embolden subordinates or citizens to speak out with new demands in exchange for support. Splits at the top can create a “political opportunity structure” that allows people to demonstrate without fear of punishment. If leaders start trying to differentiate themselves, create public personas and mobilize support from the society at large – as Bo Xilai tried to do –that threatens to unravel the regime. Yet the temptation to reach out beyond the inner circle to build a public following always exists. Even Mao Zedong himself did it when he felt that the bureaucracy was blocking his initiatives – that’s what the Cultural Revolution was all about.

The new media environment is making it more difficult to prevent individual leaders from playing to the public. With thousands of commercial media outlets and 500 million Chinese following the news on the internet, it’s just too easy, too tempting to play to the crowd. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is a media politician, but as a lame duck about to retire next fall, is not too threatening. But when Bo campaigned publicly for the Politburo Standing Committee by staking out a position as a law-and-order populist and neo-Maoist – a desperate move because he was unlikely to get on the Standing Committee otherwise – he threatened everyone else at the top. And they brought him down.

Open competition at the top feels frightening and destabilizing to the CCP elite, but it doesn’t have to threaten the survival of party rule. The leaders simply must find a way to manage the competition and prevent it from becoming an all-out war that could destroy the regime. One solution would be to allow open competition for the top posts in an election by the Central Committee, the body of several hundred government, party and military officials that already has the formal power to select CCP leaders. This is how it sometimes was done in the Soviet Union and is now done in Vietnam: The top vote-getter becomes party secretary, second best becomes premier, and third best becomes president. It would be the next step in the institutionalization of CCP leadership politics. The party almost allowed the Central Committee to hold an open election of the top posts in 2002 when it had to choose the anointed successor for the first time – Hu Jintao had been chosen by Deng Xiaoping. But scared by the possibility of a loss of control, the party took only a baby step in that direction: It held the election as an informal straw poll to gauge appeal of potential leaders and used information from the popularity contest to craft a slate of nominees acceptable to the Central Committee selectors.

The fall of Bo Xilai appears to have encouraged the advocates of economic and political reform to start speaking out in the hopes that their ideas might be taken up at the 18th CCP Congress in the fall. A second burst of reform in China could buoy prospects for Sino-US cooperation. If the economic reformers win, the private sector, which has a strong stake in economic interdependence with the US and the rest of the world, would have a stronger voice, and the state monopolies which use technology standards and policies like indigenous innovation to protect the market for themselves, would be weakened. Steps to strengthen China’s legal system – an important theme of the reformist platform – would encourage Americans to see China as once again “moving in the right direction.” A reform-minded leadership might also exercise greater restraint over the international security and propaganda bureaucracies that have run amok over the past decade in ways that have harmed China’s international reputation and relationships as well as its popularity at home.

Yet a China with more open institutionalized competition for political power might still be an assertive China. Tough stands on hot-button issues like Japan, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and South China Sea play well with a nationalist public and the political elite in the Central Committee. Politicians would take care to protect their nationalist flank as they pursue economic and political reforms that threaten vested interests like state corporations. Nor is there any reason to expect a Politburo Standing Committee selected by an open competition to be more effective at exercising supervision over bureaucracies like the State Oceanographic Administration in over-reaching and provoking fights. Earlier last month the oceanographic administration sent two ships to the Diaoyutai Island, Senkaku in Japanese, provoking a clash with the Japanese coast guard; the agency’s spokesman made a statement that the action was purely to assert Chinese sovereignty over the islands. And if the People’s Liberation Army remains a powerful bloc in the Central Committee and ultimate guarantor of CCP rule, there is no reason to anticipate a cut in defense budgets. 

Political succession has always been the Achilles heel of authoritarian systems. Bo is unlikely to be the last Chinese politician to use the media to build a public following. Trying to keep leadership competition under wraps within a black box is a losing proposition. More open competition for power within the party could open up new possibilities for reform that would have positive spillovers for China’s foreign relations. But it’s no guarantee of a China with the political legitimacy and institutional wherewithal to rise peacefully.


Susan Shirk is Ho Miu Lam Professor and chair of the 21st Century China Program at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, University of California, San Diego. She served as US deputy assistant secretary of state with responsibility for China 1997-2000. Her most recent books are China: Fragile Superpower and Changing Media, Changing China. This article is based on her presentation at the first annual conference of the Johnson Center for the Study of American Diplomacy, held in honor of Henry Kissinger at Yale University in March 2012.
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