Last Takes on the Party Congress

A few more before the Congress fades out and life under the new regime begins. First, from Evan Osnos:

On Thursday, however, the Great Hall of the People returned to its full orthodox splendor, if only for a few hours, for a peculiar ritual to mark the arrival of the new Standing Committee of the Politburo, the group of seven men who will lead the People’s Republic for the next ten years. (If they succeed, China’s Communist Party will have edged out the Soviet Union for the title of history’s longest-serving authoritarian regime.) Their début is, by tradition, a kind of Communist catwalk—officially, a “meet the press” opportunity, though no questions are asked, and none are answered. It is a performance as retro and choreographed as “Cats,” but, in its details, it gave us a few intriguing hints about the men who will seek to project China’s Communist Party into the future.

In person, Xi is a sharp contrast to the man he replaces, the robotic Hu Jintao, who spoke esoteric jargon about “harmonious society” and “a scientific outlook on development.” Hu leaves office unloved.

Divining anything about Xi’s politics from his public persona is a mug’s game, but one thing is beyond doubt: he conveys an understanding of style that utterly eluded his predecessor, and an awareness that he will be judged more openly and mercilessly than any paramount Chinese leader before him. His citizens’ experience with technology, prosperity, and cynicism has forced him to confront a problem that is now more acute than his predecessors ever faced: he was never elected, but he must figure out a way to be liked.

Those gestures of populist sensibility—the sense that, like it or not, the Party must figure out a way to be responsive—stand out especially because they are at odds with the credentials of the men that Xi will have by his side. Xi did not choose them exactly; they are a compromise between powerful families and factions. And when the members were unveiled, their composition confirmed what pundits had predicted: reform-minded candidates had been sidelined. Instead, the Party chose some of its most ardent conservatives. One is a seasoned propagandist. Another received his economics training in North Korea. They were so faithful to precedent that all but one wore a nearly identical dark suit and red tie.

When it was all over this morning, and the seven men had returned once again to the secluded backstage of the Great Hall of the People, trailed by their security, and the stage where they had stood was suddenly empty. I walked up to the spot where Xi Jinping had stood to deliver his remarks. It was carpeted in a brilliant shade of red, and at his feet there was a small piece of tape in the shape of the number one, to indicate where the most powerful man in China should stand. He looked out over a line of poinsettias and ferns, to a wall of cameras, and a world of expectations from his people. It must have been terrifying.

Next, a speculative piece from Bloomberg:

China’s new leadership, headed by Xi Jinping, will probably unveil new market-oriented changes in late 2013, according to Li Jiange, head of the country’s biggest investment bank.

Li, chairman of China International Capital Corp. and a vice chairman of state-owned Central Huijin Investment Co., which holds stakes in the nation’s biggest lenders, said the focus will probably be on reducing government intervention in the economy and breaking up state monopolies. Li spoke at Caixin Media’s annual conference in Beijing yesterday.

“Expectations are high” for the new leadership to make changes as government intervention, ranging from excessive regulation to rigid price controls, has become “unbearable” over the last couple of years, said Li, who previously worked for the Development Research Center, an organization that advises the State Council, China’s cabinet.

“When inflation was high, many Chinese stores, merchants and even producers received phone calls from regulators telling them not to increase prices,” Li said. “But how can a supermarket not change the price of pork if hog prices are rising,” he said.

There are also some sources speculating that Xi is planning to unveil changes to religious policies with an eye towards improving the situation in Tibet and Xinjiang- more if I see a proper writeup about it. Next, Susan Shirk at Chinafile says that the age of China’s new leaders may have been a key point in choosing this seven-person group:

So without an election, how did the self-interested supremos manage to agree on how power at the top would be shared?

But there is a third possibility that looks just as plausible: namely, reliance on a seniority principle. The new PBSC is more than one year older on average than the last one (63.4 vs 62.1 years). The new leaders who were promoted to the Standing Committee are all sixty-four years old or older. Of the seven members, all but General Secretary Xi Jinping and the presumptive premier Li Keqiang will need to retire in five years after one term. At that time, five (or more, depending on the size of the next PBSC) additional politicians now on the Politburo will get the chance to move up.

Seniority, plus a norm of five-year instead of ten-year terms, allows power, patronage, and the other rewards of top office to be shared more widely so that no one loses too much. Xi Jinping can work to get his close associates into the PBSC in 2017.

In this transition, there were eight Politburo members competing for five PBSC slots, which means three disappointed and potentially disgruntled losers: Wang Yang (age fifty-seven), Li Yuanchao (age sixty-two), and Liu Yandong (female, age sixty-seven). Wang Yang and Liu Yuanchao likely will be consoled with a soft promise (not enforceable, of course) that they will move up next time. The only one who has reached the glass ceiling is Madame Liu, and they are probably counting on her, as one of the very rare women ever to rise to a senior political position, not to push back.

Seniority, a useful rule for managing the social strain of competition in organizations everywhere, has helped the CCP leadership solve the power-sharing problem this time around. But it has worsened its credibility problem by widening the gap between the Party’s rhetoric about intra-party democracy and the highly secretive and concentrated process its leaders actually used.

And finally, Edward Wong on the lack of real meritocracy in the Party:

The Communist Party and its acolytes like to brag that the party promotion system is a meritocracy, producing leaders better suited to run a country than those who emerge from the cacophony of elections and partisan bickering in full-blown democracies. But critics, including a number of party insiders, say that China’s secretive selection process, rooted in personal networks, has actually created a meritocracy of mediocrity.

Instead of pure talent, political patronage and family connections are the critical factors in ascending to the top, according to recent academic studies and analyses of the backgrounds of the leaders.

In the United States and other Western countries, some prominent political families have certainly wielded power through successive generations — think of the Kennedys or Bushes — but entrenched dynasties and the influence of elders are becoming particularly noteworthy in China. The increasing prevalence of the so-called princelings, those related by birth or marriage to earlier Communist Party luminaries, is one sure sign that family background plays a decisive role in ascending to power. Four of the new standing committee members, including Xi Jinping, come from the red aristocracy. One of them, Wang Qishan, who seems to prefer blue ties, married into it.

“Xi Jinping himself didn’t come to power because of outstanding political achievements,” said Pu Zhiqiang, a rights lawyer, who added that he believed the new leadership was “quite mediocre.”

“Normal logic is that based on a meritocracy, whoever is better in terms of performance should be picked,” said Bo Zhiyue, a scholar of Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore. “But in Chinese politics, they have a logic of reverse selection,” he added. “If A is better than B, then A should be eliminated.”

That antimeritocracy logic was at work even in the assigning of portfolios. Many political insiders say that of the seven men, Wang Qishan, with his years of experience in the finance sector, would be the most able to take on day-to-day management of China’s economy. But they said he was shunted aside to be head of an anticorruption commission because Li Keqiang, the second-ranked party member and designated heir to the title of government premier, which carries overall responsibility for the economy, and other leaders feared sharing that power with the confident Mr. Wang would cause friction.

“It’s sort of absurd,” said Wu Jiaxiang, once an adviser to Zhao Ziyang, the party chief purged during the 1989 student uprising. “It shows how power games can distort the arrangements.”

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Filed under 2012 power transfer, Communist Party

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