China’s Communist Party is celebrating the 90th anniversary of its founding on July 1, 1921 with even more pomp and pageantry than it exhibited two years ago on the 60th anniversary of its coming to power in 1949. But behind the “birthday party for a billion” (though the Party has only 80 million members) is its most important leadership transition in the three decades since Deng Xioaping set the party and country on the road of economic reform.
China’s next top leaders will, for the first time, be men born after the Party seized power in 1949. With their ascendancy from next year, modern China will cross a political and demographic Rubicon. Their generation is the great, great grandchild of Mao’s first generation of leaders. Their youth occurred during the Cultural Revolution, when many of their families were purged, but they embraced the Party nevertheless, and many advanced through its ranks by being “redder than red”. They are more worldly than their predecessors, mostly educated at top Chinese universities, more likely than their predecessors to have social science rather than engineering degrees, and be more likely to send their own children to top U.S. and European universities. Their working political life has only known China transforming itself as a rising political and economic power, yet they are as pragmatically committed as their predecessors to the Party’s monopoly on power, if divided over whether the basis for that should be ideological or economic.
The distinction matters. China is at a critical stage of its economic development. It has, self-evidently, developed at great pace through the initial phases of industrialization and urbanization over the past 30 years. Now it must kick on and leap the great wall that has stopped other developing nations completing the transformation to a developed economy.
When per capita income reaches $10,000-12,000 a year (in 2007 dollars), developing economies tend to stop developing without institutional change. China’s annual per capital income is $4,000. At current growth rates that gives it less than a decade–the watch of the new leadership–before it hits the wall. It will need to make deep structural reforms, both economic and political, if it is going to be able to vault it. Regardless of the fact that even if it does clear the wall, China will still be a middle-income country–absolute size of the economy is irrelevant in this respect, even if China passes the U.S. to become the world’s largest economy–no country has yet managed to be both developed and a single-party state.
That sets up a dilemma. If the Party’s legitimacy to monopolistic rule depends on continuing to deliver the economic growth that keeps its citizens getting richer and the country stronger and if China’s rapid economic growth cannot continue beyond a certain point without institutional reform, then managing the role of government in the economy and overcoming state-owned vested interests–in other words reforming itself–becomes the new leadership’s most important concern.
If, on the other hand, the Party’s legitimacy to monopolistic rule rests on an ideology of the mandate of Mao, it will still need to forge a statist economy that can deliver the economic development to ensure social stability and regional clout, and be unable to escape the fact that economic growth cannot continue beyond a certain point without institutional reform to support its move up the arc of development and prevent the ossifying of incumbent interests. So, again, managing the role of government in the economy and arbitrating between state-owned vested interests becomes the new leadership’s most important concern.
China is not only self-evidently non-Western, but it has a self-consciously distinct history, culture and political system, so it could develop a distinct economic system. Chinese exceptionalism is not anymore unreasonable than American exceptionalism. But in that event, the Party will still have to operate and against a back-drop of a globally connected economy in a world that is already wary of China’s perceived mercantilism and rising power and status. Though unlikely, that could make China turn inward and neo-isolationist, relying on its growing internal market and a demographic bias to becoming a deficit country over the next decade, to drive the next stage in its economic development.
For now, there is every indication that China will continue on its present course. Indeed, there is a plan for that. The new leadership will come into position midway though the current five-year plan. Yet what looks from the outside to be a seamless transfer of power from one generation of leadership to the next belies the factional infighting that occurs out of public view.
So far, it is the princelings, the descendants of Mao’s original revolutionary leaders, an elite collective dynasty of some 400 families who hold extensive sway over the Party, army and the economy, that are coming out on top. One of their own, Xi Jinping (second from the right in the picture above), born 1953, is emerging as Hu Jintao’s successor as paramount leader, successively taking over from Hu the positions of Party general secretary in 2012, president in 2013 and chairman of the Central Military Commission in 2014. By then the top Party, state and military jobs will again be united in one man, if Xi successfully consolidates over the course of the two-year transition his position as the first ranked in the Politburo’s standing committee, the small group of men, currently nine, that constitute the inner sanctum of the Party’s–and China’s–power.
Xi has outflanked Li Keqiang (second from left in the picture above), the only other post-49er to make it to the Politburo’s standing committee, where he ranks seventh out of nine, one place below Xi, and who was Hu’s protege until Hu bowed to political realities and switched his support to Xi. Li, like Hu rose through the Party’s other leading faction, the Communist Youth League (YCL) whose power base is the party’s grassroots. Princelings dismissively refer to the leaders who come up through the YCL as “sons of shopkeepers.”
Xi rise from provincial official to national leader has been rapid. Cunning, calculating and ambitious Xi plays politics like a chameleon playing poker. He has worked in the countryside and in cities, north and south, in villages and in big cities, giving him a broad network of connections. He is a student of Marxism but not known to be ideological. Though never in the army, he has strong links with the armed forces. His father, General Xi Zhongxun, was a founding father of Mao’s revolution and his wife, Peng Liyuan, is both a celebrity folk singer and a major general in the PLA. He has a reputation for being pro-business (his father was purged by Mao for promoting economic opening and became one of Deng Xiaoping’s key mentors and lieutenants in instituting economic reform, particularly the early experiments in Guangdong and Shenzhen) but he is also famous for being ‘clean’, having cleared up corruption in Fujian in the 1990s and Shanghai in the 2000s, and is disdainful of China’s nouveau riche. He is calm, cautious, and above all seen as a “team player”–while all the while skillfully climbing a ladder of political patrons.
Though scarcely charismatic, Xi will be a more imposing figure on the world stage than his predecessors (though Hu set a low bar). Physically, he is tall and stocky so photo shoots with other world leaders will play well at home. With a sister in Canada, a brother in Taiwan and a daughter at Harvard in the U.S., to which he has been a visitor since the 1970s, he knows more about the world than the world knows about this plain- if rarely outspoken man who plays his political cards close to his chest–or about what he and his fellow new leaders want to do once they reach the apex of power they have scrabbled so hard to ascend.
As already noted, they will take over half way through the current five-year plan, so their initial path is set. But the next Politburo’s composition (all of its nine members save for Xi and Li are expected to retire in 2012) will also reflect the balance of power between those who believe that maintaining economic growth is necessary to legitimize the Party’s right to monopoly rule, in short the economic reformers, and those who think that legitimacy should be based on ideology, a group for whom the current Maoist nostalgia stands proxy. Many other currents–political, nationalistic, regional and demographic–cut across that divide. Even the princelings are not a monolithic bloc. Factional alliances exist among those who want to develop a more harmonious form of capitalism with a strong safety net, a narrowing of the wealth gap and more environmental protections; those harderliner economic reformers who want to diminish the power of the public sector and open up political reforms to embrace a new propertied class; and the so-called neo-comms, who want to asset China’s global power through cultural diplomacy, military strength and taking a greater role in international institutions.
Who gets promoted from the Politburo to its standing committee, and how they rank, will reveal to some extent how those divides lie and thus how China develops over the next decisive decade. But all are united in preserving the Party’s grip on power.