Tuesday 20 November 2012

Will a change in China's leadership bring about reform?

The 18th Communist Party of China National Congress resulted in only the second orderly transfer of power in the 63 years of Communist Rule. Xi Jinping will succeed Hu Jinatao in becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party of China.

By leading the smaller Politburo Standing Committee onto the stage at the Great Hall of People in Beijing, he signalled his procurement of the top role in the Party to China and the World. He will inherit the post of State president, adding to his status as Head of the Party and Chief of the Military, giving him extra clout within the committee.

The Politburo has been reduced from nine members to seven. The Party’s unofficial age restrictions mean that five of the Standing Committee will serve just one five-year term before stepping down to make way for a new crop of leaders in 2017. Both the reduction in number and age restrictions mean Xi will not be able to rely on the continuity and support of those around him for his entire term, as previous leaders have done. However he personally will rule China for the next decade.

Due to the Politburo operating by consensus, and with no outsider knowing how much gravitas Xi will carry within the Committee, it is hard to predict the outcome of the change in leadership. The new leaders however have been labelled “conservative” from the outset. Two particular members of the Committee will be staunch defenders of the state sector and orthodox socialist policies. They are the North Korean trained economist, Zhang Dejiang and the propaganda chief Liu Yunshan.

At the other side of the spectrum is the 7th man, the “floating voter” Zhang Gaoli. He has been blamed by many critics for a state run investment binge that built a financial district from scratch in the city of Tianjin, leaving it heavily in debt. Chinese analysts have referred to him as a ‘weather vane’ and during his time in charge of Shandong province, he forged economic links with South Korea and Japan. By most calculations the committee divides four to three in favour of cautious reforms.

The main resolution passed by the 18th Party Congress was named the Guiding Marxist document, however it did outline elements of a reformist manifesto. It spoke of a need to expedite economic change in China.

“Very few people know about who China's new leader will be, what he thinks”, said Minxin Pei, Claremont McKenna College. Within China, Xi is less famous than his wife, army general turned the folk singer Peng Liyuan, but this will undoubtedly change over the next decade.

Xi is often referred to as a ‘princeling’, the privileged son of a former leader. He has experienced both extremes of the Party - the benefits of being at the top and the results of being a target in governmental purge. Xi himself was sent away to ‘learn from the people’ when his father was purged from his position of power within the Party. This, combined with his military connections and support for state-owned industries, gives the expectation that he will be a rather conservative leader.

If Xi wants to reform the Party and the country, he has two major limitations: firstly, the system “is in favour of moderation, and nothing can change quickly. Steady as it goes, the political rhythm first has to be installed…. Significant shifts will come later”, (David Kelly, Director of the Beijing-based political think-tank China Policy.) Secondly, he will be constrained in his ability to set his own policies, due to having to consult with two retired presidents who have often clashed over the last decade. Senior leaders like former President Jiang Zemin appear to be keeping their fingers on the buttons of power long into retirement. As Kerry Brown, head of the Asia programme at Chatham House states, “the issue lies with who opposes you rather than who supports you.”

We will just have to wait and see what the effects of this change in leadership has in stall for the Communist Party, China and the resulting global knock-on effect.


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