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China’s New Leaders: No Reform Dream Team

by Elizabeth C. Economy
November 15, 2012

China's new Politburo Standing Committee members Zhang Gaoli, Liu Yunshan, Zhang Dejiang, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Yu Zhengsheng and Wang Qishan, line up as they meet with press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 15, 2012. China's new Politburo Standing Committee members Zhang Gaoli, Liu Yunshan, Zhang Dejiang, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Yu Zhengsheng and Wang Qishan, line up as they meet with press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 15, 2012. (Carlos Barria/Courtesy Reuters)


Let’s face it. China’s 18th Party Congress was a heartbreaker. In terms of personnel, it was a triumph of the Party’s conservative clique; and in terms of policy, it was a victory for more of the same. It didn’t have to be that way, but the Party elders elected to preserve their legacy at the expense of opening the door to real change. The candidates for the Politburo Standing Committee with the strongest reform credentials—Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang—were left high and dry, while those who anchor the “hold back change at all cost” wing of the Party—Zhang Dejiang and Liu Yunshan—took their place among the top seven. The remaining five—Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Zhang Gaoli, Yu Zhengsheng, and Wang Qishan—represent a range of relativity: relatively more or less interested in political reform and relatively more or less committed to economic reform.  So what to expect from this somewhat mixed bag of conservatism? Hu Jintao’s November 8 Party Congress speech offers some clues.

1)      Democracy will become a new Communist Party buzzword. But don’t be fooled.  This is not “a democracy is a democracy is a democracy is a democracy.”

Topping Hu’s political wish-list for the next leadership is a desire to root out corruption, a goal of every Chinese leader since 1950. In his speech, Hu warned, “If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the Party and even lead to the collapse of the Party and the fall of the State.” Hu’s prescription to meet the challenge looks to be democracy—Chinese-style. Political scholar and activist Li Fan described to me what Hu and his successor Xi Jinping have in mind: intra-party democracy, which means more candidates than positions but only for the Party faithful; and deliberative democracy, which means developing institutions to channel public opinion into the political process through consultation, but not granting any real decision making-power to the people. This is not “democracy” but democracy with Chinese characteristics, all in service of strengthening the Communist Party.

2)      A high GDP growth rate is addictive. Don’t look for the Chinese leaders to take on the tough reforms up front.  

Hu’s economic plan for the next ten years reads like his own from ten years ago: rebalance the economy, make growth more balanced, coordinated and sustainable, and reform the financial system, among many other laudable reforms. Unfortunately, nothing in Hu’s speech gives the new leadership the roadmap to success. And since the most able economic reformer of China’s new leadership, Wang Qishan, has been tasked with taking on corruption, it is hard to know who in the new leadership will have the vision and political wherewithal to push the painful reforms necessary through the country’s powerful “vested interests.”

3)      Peaceful rise is passé.  

There is little doubt about Hu Jintao’s preferred direction for Chinese foreign policy. Forget about Deng Xiaoping’s “hide brightness, cherish obscurity” mantra. China is ready to come out to the world as a military power. Hu called for developing a “strong national defense and powerful armed forces that are commensurate with China’s international standing,” strengthening the military’s capabilities to “win a local war in an information age,” and becoming a “maritime power.” No doubt Hu’s speech leaves China’s neighbors longing for the days of Premier Wen Jiabao’s “win-win” “a rising tide lifts all boats” diplomacy.

It is possible, of course, that the new leadership might surprise with a far more proactive reform orientation. Hu Shuli, one of China’s best-known journalists and outspoken advocates for political reform,  has examined Hu Jintao’s speech with an eye toward what “could be” were China’s leaders to seize the moment and “move from ideas to realities.” I hope she is right, but if the new leaders’ past is prologue, China’s reformers are in for a long five years.

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by Loren Fauchier

    No one should be surprised by the “strong national defense” approach commensurate with China’s growing economic power and international standing. Chinese have denied this would happen for some time. But the approaches of Paul Kennedy and John Mearsheimer (though different) predict that a rising economic power creates a large military to protect its “assets” as defined by that power. And of course the rising power always claims that its growing military is for “peaceful purposes.”

  • Posted by Df-41

    So china chose leaders that the west hates.
    That means its good news for china.
    Anything the west likes is bad for china and anything the west hates is good for china.
    So this group of leaders are the correct leaders since the west hates them.
    I love it.

    China does not need the failed political system of the bankrupt west where you get votes from taking bribes from billionaires and corporations.

    Thank god china chose these leaders.

    Well done china.

  • Posted by Df-41

    Good to see china didn’t fall for the western trap of western democracy!

    Western democracy is a failed political system which is why the US is becoming a failed state.

    In America, politicians getting money from corporations and individuals to do their bidding is called ‘LOBBYING’ and is LEGAL.
    In China, government officials getting money from corporations and individuals to do their bidding is called
    BRIBERY and is ILLEGAL. Bribery in china gets a death penalty.

    In China, officials like Bo Xilai are punished.
    In a corrupt failed state like America, officials like Jon Corzine get off scot free for stealing billions from the public.

    As long as corruption and bribery is legal in America, America aint touching China in the 21at century.

  • Posted by Jake


    I would be interested to hear more on your thoughts. It seems you are proposing that China’s track record of corruption and transparency is cleaner than the traditional Western democracies. Where did you find this information? I understand your frustration with the economic situation of the West, but to suggest that China should adopt the exact opposite seems questionable. Furthermore, if you are familiar with the severe demographic issues, industrial to post-industrial shift China still needs to undergo, human rights violations and currency manipulation, I wouldn’t be so sure that China is ‘off to the races’ in the 21st Century. There will be serious growing pains over the next decades. Electing the officials that were just put into office is not a good start at catalyzing positive change.

  • Posted by Nguoi Phan Bien

    I have no problem with people expressing their views on China. But I do have a problem with people who insist on that China must follow the Western way of organizing their social and political systems. And if China doesn’t do as she is told; unapologically and Chauvinistically by the Western media, the Western press is out in force to badmouth China.

  • Posted by bigben_usa

    We in the west have a tendency to impose our ideology on others. We point out the strengths but often times bypass the consequences. We all know that there are strengths and weaknesses in the so called liberal democracies. Fiscal cliff, partisan politics, gridlock on both sides of the Atlantic as well as in other emerging countries with liberal democratic model, Japan’s move from a dominant party system to a multiparty system hasn’t pend out too well are all examples that will not encourage the Chinese. For them, it is like trading in one set problems for another.

    Nevertheless, there is no question that for China to continue to more forward, some elements of political reform are necessary and inevitable. The concept of democracy is basically the norm in modern government, just like monarchy was the norm in the pre-modern era. However, as there were variations in monarchy, there could also be various forms of democracy. Therefore, China should not blindly adopt democracy seen in other countries per se, but try to come up with a system that takes strengths (transparency, popular support, etc) and avoid the weaknesses (gridlock, partisan politics, etc). This should be beyond the ideological argument of liberalism, conversatism, confucianism, etc. It should strives to develop a system that balances out the need for enough legitimacy as well as check and balance and yet retains merit and competency based on a society’s unique underlying character. It has a golden opportunity to think out of the box, learn from the experience from other countries and try to improve it. No government or system is perfect, it all comes down to striking a balance that is acceptable for the majority of its own citizens.

  • Posted by bigben_usa

    I think it is premature to make any informed judgement on the new leadership reform agenda. On the surface, the Politburo Standing Committee members are on the conservative side in terms of political reforms. Known to be political reformers like Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao are not on it. However, we should also consider the next level of the Politburo, which includes a number of more liberal reformers, including both Wang and Li. Of the 7 members of Standing Committee, 5 will likely be gone in the next party congress (five years from now) due mandatory retirement age. Wang and Li are relatively younger, and both are possible candidates as well as potential 6th generation leaders like Hu Chunhua and Sun Zhengcai. A Politburo Standing Committee that includes Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Wang, Li, Hu and Sun for Xi’s 2nd term could pave the way for political reform. Also, the personnel in the just announced Politburo Standing Committee are quite capable in economic, financial and legal reforms, all of which are likely necessary before promoting political changes. While anything can happen over the coming years, we’ve to be aware the Chinese do think long term. Either way, only time can tell.

  • Posted by NL

    Interesting. We should not forget however that Xi JingPing and Hu JinTao are from different factions, and that they are still fighting over who should keep or have the leadership of the army during the next year.
    We know nothing about Xi JingPing, only that he’s very well supported by Jiang Zemin’s wife, which should indicate what his stance is on reform and development.
    I won’t be surprised that, for the survival of the party, big reform could happen within the party first and then outside.

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