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Not All “Teams of Rivals” Are Made the Same: China’s Disastrously Divided Leadership

Deng Xiaoping is best known in the West as the author of the market-oriented policies that put China on a path to over three decades of rapid economic growth. But Deng also stabilized the nation’s political system by establishing rules and procedures for selecting leaders and transferring power. Since his day top figures in the state and party apparatus have served limited, ten-year terms, with the expectation that they will retire before reaching the age of seventy. And on Thursday November 15, just over a week after Barak Obama’s re-election, a new group of leaders will emerge from the opaque, multi-year process of promotion, bargaining and deal making that has evolved since Deng stepped aside in 1992.

As in the United States, the final outcome will not be revealed until all the ballots are counted and the victors will be greeted with lavish accolades—though in China the names of the men at the top of the ticket have been known for some time. Barring a last minute “November surprise,” Xi Jinping, currently China’s vice president, will take over Hu Jintao’s roles as head of state and chief of the Communist party, while vice premier Li Keqiang replaces Wen Jiabao as the top man in the government bureaucracy. (The other five positions on the Politiburo Standing Committee, the nation’s most powerful decision-making body, will also be filled on Thursday.) Deng’s system has thus far served its purpose: preventing the disruptive, sometimes bloody power struggles that have been the downfall of other authoritarian regimes.

This year’s succession, however, has been far from smooth. China’s political elite is clearly divided against itself, although the precise composition of the factions is much hazier. Some observers see a contest between a group of “princelings,” the descendants of China’s revolutionary founders, and those from more modest backgrounds, many of whom got their start in the Communist Party Youth League. (Xi belongs to the first group, Li is a member of the second.) Others describe a behind-the-scenes struggle between Hu, Wen and their followers, and the protégées of retired but still influential president Jiang Zemin. Very public accusations of corruption against the former Chongqing mayor and high-profile princeling Bo Xilai earlier this year removed him from contention for a spot on the Standing Committee; there have also been embarassing accounts in the Western press detailing the personal fortunes amassed by relatives of incoming president Xi Jinping and outgoing premier Wen Jiabao.

Whatever their impact on the final composition of China’s top leadership, these revelations could signal a dangerous escalation in competition among the nation’s political elite. Everyone knows that corruption is endemic throughout the system, and it is precisely for this reason that contenders for power had generally steered clear of the “politics of personal destruction.” Mutual accusations and detailed exposes of corruption at the very top of the system would damage all factions, and could destroy what remains of the Party’s legitimacy in the long term.

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But assuming they can patch up their differences in the short term, China’s new “team of rivals” will still face a daunting array of challenges. Most experts acknowledge that the existing economic growth model is, as Wen Jiabo once described it, “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and ultimately unsustainable.” The massive stimulus package unleashed in 2009 helped fend off the worst effects of the global economic crisis, but it also deepened reliance on capital investment, state-owned enterprises, and exports rather than domestic consumption and private, innovative firms as the main drivers of growth. These structural problems have yet to be addressed. Meanwhile, as the stimulus wears off, China faces the prospect of an economic slowdown.

Chinese society also continues to be marked by widespread unrest. The government used to publish statistics recording the number of large-scale protests or “mass incidents,” but it stopped in 2005 when the figure exceeded 80,000. Some scholars believe the number has doubled in recent years. Most of these incidents are not overtly political; they involve protests by farmers whose land has been expropriated by corrupt local officials, or workers demanding unpaid wages. People feel the need to take to the streets because they cannot voice their grievances in competitive elections or independent courts. According to a poll published recently in a state-run newspaper, fully 80 percent of those questioned said they support some kind of political reform.

Well-meaning observers have a tendency to project their hopes onto new leaders. When Hu Jintao took office in 2002 he was rumored to be a closet liberal and perhaps even a “Chinese Gorbachev”; this despite his role in crushing dissent when he served as Party Secretary in Tibet during the late 1980s. Similarly, in recent months, there have been breathless accounts of Xi Jinping meeting with some well-known advocates of reform.

Unfortunately, even if Xi himself is a believer, there is very little chance that he will be able to implement the kind of change that China needs. At best, he will be first among equals and will have to bargain and compromise with others who give even less evidence of enthusiasm for real reform. Even among those who favor change there are no influential public advocates of a genuine, mulit-party system or unrestricted freedom of political expression. On closer inspection, reform proposals usually turn out to involve mechanisms for creating the appearance of greater choice by expanding “democracy within the Party.” Whatever appetite there may be for experimentation will likely be lessened by worsening economic conditions and the prospect of rising social unrest.

Without genuine political change, far-reaching economic reform will also be extremely difficult to achieve. The current growth model may have outlived its usefulness, but it continues to serve the personal interests of party and state officials, their relatives and business partners. Even if some are far-sighted enough to realize that China’s present path is unsustainable, and self-sacrificing enough to want to change it, the vast majority can be expected to use their influence to try to protect their interests by maintaining the status quo. In recent years many of those with money and power have responded to increased risk by moving some of their wealth out of the country.

All of this is bad for China and for the Chinese people, but it could also be bad for the rest of the world. The elaborate succession process now approaching its climax was intended to balance factional interests and weed out potentially domineering figures; it was designed to produce a genuine power sharing arrangement in which important decisions depend on consensus. Despite some rough moments, the system appears once again to have done its job.

While acting with excessive caution at home, a weak collective leadership may actually be prone to pursue more assertive, even aggressive external policies. Faced with rising domestic discontent, this leading group will probably feel compelled to rely even more heavily than their predecessors on a militant strand of nationalism to rally popular support, and they may seek to deflect public anger outwards towards foreign bogeymen like Japan. Lacking the stature and experience to stand up to the military, the civilian leadership may be inclined to give in to its demands for yet more resources and tougher policies. And, in the event of a crisis or confrontation, none of the members of the inner circle will want to risk accusations of being “soft” or lacking patriotic zeal. Despite their seeming blandness, China’s new rulers could end up steering their country into very dangerous waters indeed.

Aaron L. Friedberg is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia.