China’s Leaders Head to the Beach

Posted on August 2, 2012

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The scandal surrounding the downfall of Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai has revealed the problems with President Hu Jintao’s unrelenting emphasis on harmony among the country’s top leaders. Unless things change soon China’s legendary economic growth could grind to a halt.

As the summer comes to an end, Chinese leaders are preparing for a once-in-a-decade turnover in leadership. But unlike past transitions, this time around, there are no revolutionary-credentialed party elders to mediate among the party’s squabbling cliques.

This means the jockeying for powerful positions in the new Politburo’s lineup could be more combative, as rival kingpins push aggressively for their favorites. Coming off their annual summer provincial inspection tours, the chief powerbrokers of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will soon be setting off for their summer retreat at the seaside resort town of Beidaihe where the process will begin in earnest.

About 175 miles east of Beijing, Beidaihe is always more about backroom politics than determining policy. Since the time of Mao Zedong, the resort has served as a refuge where political bosses from around the country can come together quietly to build alliances, or, when necessary, go head to head away from the unyielding demands of unity in the public eye.

The resort’s informal setting, requiring leaders to leave the titles and trappings of Beijing behind, also creates a more level playing field for the wide cast of party magnates — especially those who are officially retired but still wield substantial influence. As such, the setting rewards those most skilled at backstage political maneuvering, sometimes resulting in surprising realignments in the leadership’s balance of power. In fact, President Hu Jintao, who was uncomfortable with the place because its opaque deal-making clashed with his emphasis on transparency and “inner-party democracy,” tried to ban the gathering early in his tenure. But the allure of handshakes near the seashore is so ingrained in the CCP’s political culture that his campaign went nowhere.

This year, the ostensible goal of the meeting is to achieve consensus on a new slate of top party leaders. But that agenda is complicated by the fact that the leadership is gathering in the shadow of the Bo Xilai scandal. The party formally dumped Bo from the Politburo in April, after he was tripped up by his own deceit, abuse of power, and unbridled ambition. Granted, the leadership took a big step last week by formally charging Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, with the murder of Neil Heywood, a British businessman who worked for the couple as a fixer. But Gu was always the low-hanging fruit, marked as the sacrificial lamb from the beginning, when the state media announced her as a formal suspect in the Heywood killing.

Yet, unlike in April, there was no simultaneous announcement concerning Bo, suggesting he remains adrift in the netherworld of the party’s extrajudicial detention system. What is more, it remains unclear what will happen to Bo’s erstwhile security chief, Wang Lijun, whose flight to a U.S. consulate in February touched off the whole scandal in the first place. The lack of synchronization suggests moving forward on Gu may be a holding action rather than the beginning of the final act. If so, the CCP’s early hopes of wrapping up the entire Bo case, and all of its unbecoming implications, well ahead of the fall turnover have hit a snag.

In dragging its feet on resolving Bo’s fate, the CCP has missed an opportunity to demonstrate, both at home and abroad, that the party’s leadership is marching in lockstep into the transition. Its failure to make speedier progress is curious, as important interim steps could have been taken by now. A simple announcement, similar to that on Gu, that the party was handing Bo over to the state judicial authorities for formal prosecution would allay any lingering doubts among party insiders or foreign investors by sending an unambiguous signal that the leadership has at least agreed to an initial list of charges.

Instead, Hu and other top leaders have reportedly been messaging with internal edicts to argue that Bo’s case be treated as a breach of law and party regulations rather than as an attempt to split the party. Trying to limit Bo’s transgressions to the narrower allegation of violations of party discipline helps avoid destabilizing factional splits, but a flurry of recent reports suggesting that he has stopped cooperating with interrogators could make any resolution even more illusory.

The Bo saga is not playing out in a vacuum. As more time passes, the stakes are getting higher. For example, the CCP’s leadership is now considering downsizing the Politburo Standing Committee, the regime’s top decision-making body at the fall Party Congress, from nine seats to seven. Earlier this month, the front page of the overseas edition of the party’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily, carried an unusual paean to the current configuration. But more recent stories appearing in Hong Kong and other unofficial overseas Chinese media suggest that there are also stakeholders building a coalition to scale back the committee to seven members, which, they argue, would streamline its deliberations. It is reasonable to believe that these conflicting reports are the result of targeted leaks designed to shape the deliberations at Beidaihe.

The debate turns on what danger the party elites fear most. First, there are worries about greater autocracy. The article praising the current setup noted that the nine-member Standing Committee represents all the regime’s leading institutions, ensuring a “collective presidential system” that is stable, more democratic, and less subject to the whims of an individual leader. Advocates of shrinking the committee, however, argue that the current structure has promoted too many entrenched, vested interests at the top. They say concentrating power in fewer hands would promote greater efficiency by empowering the new team to tackle the party’s most vexing challenges such as taking on official corruption and pressing ahead with economic and Chinese-style political reforms.

Even the discussion of shrinking the Standing Committee will make the jockeying for a spot more feverish, as key powerbrokers worry that their interests may not be fully protected if their candidates lose out. This, in turn, could make them less willing to accommodate their rivals as the pressure to demonstrate the strength of their political networks mounts. Of everyone, Hu is likely feeling the heat the most. As the departing leader, he must show that he can safeguard his interests heading into retirement, but only a few of his closest allies have all the right credentials, including membership on the current Politburo, to make an easy case for promotion to the Standing Committee.

With the leadership preoccupied, it is no surprise that policy confusion has become the order of the day, even on issues of substantial import. On the South China Sea, for example, Beijing’s approach is drifting “from maintaining stability to safeguarding sovereignty,” as the well-connected Chinese academic Jin Canrong recently argued in People’s Daily. The last time the sea became a flashpoint, in 2009-10, the leadership stepped in to remind the country’s hawks that defending sovereignty was important but ultimately subordinate to focusing on economic development. With politics now in command, it is unlikely that anyone will risk looking soft on defending China’s “core interests” by calling for restraint.

Management of the economy, too, has appeared muddled. Beijing has repeatedly issued edicts in the last few weeks underscoring its resolve to keep real estate prices under control in the interest of social stability. During a recent provincial tour, Vice Premier Li Keqiang, the putative future steward of the economy as premier, separately reiterated the regime’s commitment to rebalance the economy by promoting domestic demand. But local officials know that delivering high GDP growth in their regions, most often underwritten by land sales and property development, is a key criterion for promotion. Likewise, the party must weigh its desire to create a positive atmosphere for the Party Congress by boosting the economy against concerns that a return to an investment-led strategy in the second half of the year would further delay the rebalancing agenda.

Once the smoke clears from the handover of power, there is every reason to believe that the new team will tackle these issues in due course. The question for China — and the world — is whether the transition will get out of the shadow of the Bo scandal and beyond the debate over the size of the Standing Committee to come out strong enough to handle the challenges on the other side.

Christopher K. Johnson

What China Learned from the Soviet Union’s Fall

Why the process of assessing blame for the collapse of the USSR is still a hot topic in Beijing

In a major speech on July 24, 2012 China’s President, Hu Jintao, called for the country to “unswervingly” carry out reform and opening up and to fight against rigidity and stagnation.  This follows on the heels of other calls (Premier Wen Jiabao’s being the most notable) to continue the reform process in China.

Why the increasing vociferousness?

China is gearing up for one of its historic leadership transitions which will culminate in the 18th National Party Congress some time this fall. This begs the question, how will the transition affect the future trajectory of China, its economy, and its people?

The ascendancy of China’s new “fifth generation” leaders has led me to ruminate on the topic of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) resiliency. In spite of everything, the CCP has managed to stay in control, and I might dare say flourish, though most of its communist brethren have ended up in the dustbin of history. In fact as of today, there are (not including the PRC) only four remaining communist regimes – North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba.

But all has not been “smooth sailing” for the CCP… far from it. One of the Party’s favorite mantras is that it values stability above all else and seeks to build a harmonious society, yet official and unofficial statistics continue to show an exponential increase in the number of protests within China’s borders. This keeps questions regarding what is in store for the CCP at the forefront of discussions about China’s future.

What is China’s Secret?

I am not an alchemist and therefore cannot turn hypotheses into fact. However, I would hazard a guess that the secret to China’s success is that there is no secret; rather the Chinese Communist Party has simply been much more adept and successful at tweaking the foundations on which its present day legitimacy is based. And China’s neighbor to the north provided it with some of its most valuable lessons. By this of course I mean the former Soviet Union.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was one of the most pivotal events of the 20th century. Communism, as an ideology and as a form of government, and its manifestation in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its Soviet satellites (particularly in Eastern Europe), was an “evil” which the Western world, led by the United States in the Cold War, could rally against. It was also a “model” which other communist countries and governments, particularly the CCP could use to bolster and legitimize their own communist experiment.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that when the USSR’s decay led to outright collapse, few countries were as concerned by these events as the PRC. After all, the Soviet Union was the birthplace of the world’s first, and to date, still longest socialist experiment, and as such, China’s own modern political history and development were deeply influenced by it. It was, and still is, critical to the survival of the CCP to determine how to avoid a similar fate.

Last year was the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s collapse and so it seemed to be an appropriate time to step back to analyze some of the different schools of thought that emerged in China during, and soon after, these tumultuous years. However, after reviewing many of these new materials and determining that there is not one uniform or monolithic view in China about the reasons why the Soviet Union became undone, three major viewpoints do seem to dominate the Chinese discourse. What I call “The Three Blames”: “Blame the Man,” “Blame the System,” and “Blame the West.” And it seems that everyone loves to play the blame game.

Blame the Man

For many in China in the late 1980s, early 1990s, and even until today, assessing blame for the Soviet Union’s collapse begins and ends with a single individual, Mikhail Gorbachev. This view seems to resonate most strongly with China’s more conservative leftists. During the height of Gorbachev’s reform efforts, there were people who argued that “within the CCP and within China intense ‘ideological struggle’ would be waged against Gorbachev’s ‘revisionism.’” Of course, since the Communist Revolution of 1949 few, if any, labels are more dreaded than “revisionist.” Even as recently as last year, the “Blame the Man” school of thought was en vogue. On March 1, 2011, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) released a new book, Preparing for Danger in Times of Safety: Recollections on the 20-Year Anniversary of the Collapse of the Russian Communist Party (居安思危: 苏联亡党二十年的思考), which concludes that the root cause of the collapse of the CPSU was not the Russian socialist system itself, but rather the corruption of the Russian Communists led by then-President Gorbachev.

The debilitating affects of corruption are manifesting themselves in China today, so it’s no wonder that the CCP certainly in word, if not always in deed, seems desperate to wage war against this dreaded foe.

Blame the System

A second influential camp comprised of more liberal or reform-minded individuals saw the impetus of the collapse as being systemic – not a flaw in the socialist model itself, but rather in how it was executed in the Soviet Union. These people blamed domestic causes such as economic stagnation, mismanagement, excessive dogmatism and bureaucratic ossification for the Soviet Union’s collapse. These problems were certainly not solely the result of Gorbachev-era policies, but like a cancer that had been allowed to metastasize, spread over time throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

One could see why this “Blame the System” idea would gain traction with reform-minded Party members in China. After all, many of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were an effort to combat just this sort of stale, stagnant thinking. It is interesting that Hu’s latest speech also cautions against such perils.

Blame the West

The “Blame the West” camp differentiates itself from the other two because it seems particularly consumed by fear of the United States’ policies and influence in the region. In fact one of this camp’s overriding concerns is that Washington would use its power to step up pressure on China to initiate regime change. Articles appeared in places like the People’s Daily and Hong Kong’s Wen Wei Po stating that the CCP was fearful of growing influence by “aggressive” Western powers as well as of outward signs of Party disunity. (No doubt an issue that is on the leadership’s minds today given the recent events surrounding the now disgraced Bo Xilai.) These sentiments are still echoed and diatribes against American hegemony often find their way onto many a Chinese Op-Ed page.

“The Soviet Union’s Today will be Our Tomorrow”: Not if they can help it

Yet more interesting than mere identification of these “Three Blames” is determining to what extent they influenced CCP policymakers and policy. At one level, one of the major outcomes within China’s elite politics circles is that Deng Xiaoping and the reformist agenda were declared the de facto winners over China’s more conservative forces led by Chen Yun, the Chairman of the CPC Central Advisory Commission at the time.

However, in addition to this “factional” win, there were some very real policy shifts, or at the very least, policy adjustments, that took place because of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Some of these include China’s replacement of the Soviet model of multinational state-building with its “one nation with diversity” policy, and its institution of the patriotic education campaign to try to shore up CCP legitimacy. Another area where policies may have been implemented to quiet critiques from the “Blame the West” camp is in China’s increased development of its social welfare policies. Pensions, the minimum livelihood guarantee, the “New Socialist Countryside,” and healthcare reform in the form of medical insurance, are all intended to strengthen the “socialist” claims of the PRC as an alternative model to the unbridled capitalism of the West.

Looking at CCP reactions to the collapse of the Soviet Union and attempting to understand how they chose to intuit these “lessons learned” seems to demonstrate that the CCP has been engaged in a continual learning process culminating in a type of policy-planning plasticity. Each of the “solutions” the CCP came up with to militate against Soviet-style collapse addresses some area where they found the Soviet Union to be lacking. Perhaps China’s most important lesson was how to become an adaptive authoritarian regime when so many people had lost faith in Marxism-Leninism, the socialist economy, and communist orthodoxy.

My question is: How long will this tree continue to bear fruit for the CCP?

A. Greer Meisels

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