“Of Change and Continuity”

The oddly-named Knowledge@Wharton, somehow connected to UPenn, has a good interview with Jacques deLisle on the upcoming changing of the guard in Zhongnanhai. A few selections:

China Knowledge: Given that context domestically, what’s your take on what some say is Hu Jintao’s other big legacy — for China to be a more assertive power regionally and internationally?

DeLisle: The dictum that Deng Xiaoping, and his successor Jiang Zemin, followed was, in effect, “Hide your light under a bushel” — become a strong country, but don’t be too noisy about it because people will push back against you and be suspicious of your aims. That policy faded halfway through the Hu years, partly because China is doing well and wants the recognition that comes with doing well, and partly because they put a lot of resources into the military. This all coalesces into China being much more assertive about its interests and preferences in the international system.

Since 2008, China has been throwing sharper elbows. A lot of the good will and soft power advances of earlier years have dissipated quickly. You see it in disputes over the South China Sea, frictions with various neighbors, like Vietnam and Japan, certainly, and the problem of China backing North Korea.

Taiwan has been an exception.

China Knowledge: Has China’s next generation of leaders shown their cards yet in any of this?

DeLisle: The fifth generation will start taking over in the fall of next year at the Party Congress. Li Keqiang is going to be Wen Jiabao’s successor as premier, and Xi Jinping will succeed Hu Jintao as president and general secretary.

The Chinese political system now is not one where successors show their cards all that much. It’s not as if there are elections and a premium for distinguishing yourself from other aspiring leaders. It’s very much a pyramidal system and people rise to the top by staying within the consensus that frames the leadership’s policy. There are, of course, internal disputes over policy, but they tend not to be terribly publicly visible.

So there are few cards shown. You don’t secure your succession by challenging your predecessor openly while he’s still sitting on the throne…. What we’ve heard Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang say is not very far off from what orthodox policy has been under the fourth generation.

Some areas to look for indicators of change are career paths and personal history. A fairly standard, and generally accurate assessment, of fifth-generation politics is to talk about the “princelings” and the Communist Youth League group. The princelings are basically the sons — I say sons, because there are few daughters at top levels– of the first-generation revolutionary leaders. These people have grown up as China’s elite. They have largely served in China’s booming coastal areas — Shanghai, Beijing and so on. They’re thought of as people of the Jiang Zemin model — inequality is okay, growth is what it’s all about and so is deep engagement with the outside world. The Youth League faction that Hu Jintao — and to a certain degree Wen Jiabao — are more associated with are more concerned about inequality, the less-developed hinterland, and social stability and justice issues.

China Knowledge: So it will be more of the same generally in 2012?

DeLisle: The Mainland is the one place that we know where there will be a change of leaders by the end of 2012. We pretty much know who they are and have a good idea of their general orientation. And the fact that the occupants of offices formally change doesn’t mean the old guys leave power and the new guys have all the power. It takes more than a year for the successors just to accumulate all the formal posts, and it takes a couple of years or more for the old group to fade. Whether we will see continuity in foreign, or external, policy is really dependent to a great degree on what happens in presidential politics in two other places.

As for the election in Taiwan in January, a fair reading of the DPP candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, is that she would be a good deal more moderate than Chen Shui-bian, partly by personal preference, partly by temperament and partly by virtue of the political constraints she would face as the elected leader of Taiwan under current circumstances. But at a moment of formal transition on the Mainland, which — for all the continuity — is a period of high tension when nobody wins points by being soft, and given what are pretty entrenched Chinese suspicions rooted in the pro-independence Chen Shui-bian era of what the DPP in power means, there’s a real risk that China would react very badly to a DPP victory. That risk is particularly significant if it comes in the wake of Mainland-bashing or pro-independence electioneering in Taiwan, which is a real possibility. Taiwan has democratic elections and that means candidates face complicated calculations about whether to play to their more extreme base or to play to the middle. Ma may have to say relatively critical things about China to court median voters.

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Filed under 2012 power transfer, Communist Party, Taiwan, Zhongnanhai

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