The induction of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang as new leaders of the Communist Party of China (CCP) will effectively begin as President Hu Jintao takes leave at the party’s Eighteenth National Congress this week. At the same time all but two of the nine current Central Committee members are set to retire, and the committee itself may be streamlined to just seven members. The new Politburo – whose composition is not yet settled – will then guide the world’s most populous nation through several of its most problematic years.
President Obama’s second term challenges – congressional intransigence, the ‘fiscal cliff,’ job growth, decaying infrastructure – are well known and have already been widely interpreted. Those facing China’s new leaders are less familiar to Westerners, but are likely to prove no less consequential. The changes that will result from the Eighteenth Congress may well prove to be as momentous as those in the American election. Although comparisons between single party states and democracies are necessarily imperfect, the Politburo shift is probably greater than anything that could have taken place if the Republicans had won the US election. (During his second term, for example, Obama may appoint up to three Supreme Court Justices – which is, after all, just a single branch of government; had seven appointments been available the issue would likely have dominated the 2012 campaign.)
As they gather in Beijing’s gigantic Great Hall of the People – a building that can seat up to 5,000 diners in its Banquet Hall – members of the Congress know too well that Xi and Li will have no grace period. Their decisions will directly control the fate of four times as many people as the American President and, as helmsmen of the world’s second largest economy, indirectly affect the economic future of the entire planet.
In addition to complex geopolitical judgements, the transition comes at a time of internal crisis for the CCP. A corruption scandal has just humbled Bo Xilai, one of its most charismatic princelings and a New York Times report on the family of Premier Wen Jiabo recently revealed that his relatives had acquired assets close to US$2.7 billion during the last decade. (In June a Bloomberg analysis of Xi Jinping’s personal wealth, estimated his net worth at US$380 million.) The Great Firewall of China has, of course, kept these embarrassing disclosures from the computer screens of ordinary Chinese, but there is only so much that can be done to prevent the information from reaching the public. The CCP leaders know this and in many respects they are playing an anxious waiting game.
In a Time profile on Xi Jinping, Hannah Beech notes that while China has become much wealthier under Hu Jintao, it has also become more restive: “The number of protests and other so called mass incidents has increased so dramatically that embarrassed Chinese authorities stopped publishing figures seven years ago.” Beech quotes the Chinese economist Mao Yushi: “If you look at these protests, almost all of them are because of abuse of governmental power. That’s why the leaders are very worried. They are the cause of the political instability.”
Somewhat paradoxically, political instability has been exacerbated by sustained economic growth. While the average citizen’s standard of living has improved far more than most Western observers would have predicted, (certainly in 1989) the prosperity has been accompanied by the rise of the world’s largest security state. This year alone the country will spend some US$110 billion on internal security measures. Beech quotes the Beijing sociologist Yu Jianrong: “For the sake of stability [China has] suppressed the livelihood of the people, suppressed human rights, suppressed rule of law, suppressed reform. But stability preservation has not suppressed corruption, nor has it suppressed mining tragedies, nor has it suppressed illegal property demolitions and seizures.”
Not much is known about Xi Jinping’s personal views on these matters, but as the son of one of Mao’s trusted lieutenants he has firsthand experience of a political purge. (In the early ’60s his father was jailed and Xi was dispatched for seven years agricultural labour in a commune.) It is therefore encouraging to learn that Xi has reportedly been meeting quietly with “reform-minded intellectuals, including some who have called for the government to face up to the Tiananmen crackdown.” The meetings may be nothing more than Xi’s political due diligence, but they may also signal a new direction, the beginnings of a Chinese glastnost. If so, this Congress may well turn out to be far more significant, all things considered, than the re-election of President Obama.