The East is Red – the recent Chinese leadership transition and its consequences

Dr Malte Kaeding

After the media was dominated for a perceived eternity by the US elections campaign or the endless Eurozone Crisis, in mid-November attention briefly went a bit further east where the Chinese Communist party (CCP) has completed its once-a-decade leadership transition, revealing the 25 members of the Politburo and the seven members of its Standing Committee.
In March 2013 Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will formally take over power from Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, Xi as CCP General Secretary and President and Li as Premier. The media has tried hard to provide us with some information about who the new leaders are and a lot of scholars and pundits have analysed the possible impact of the leadership change on the rest of the world.
It is likely that China will become a more assertive regional power as its current belligerent maritime behaviour vis-à-vis Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines already suggests. On the wider international arena there is already its tough stance in the Libyan and Syrian crisis. It will not get any easier dealing with a ‘peacefully rising’ China. More state-owned enterprises and state investment funds going on spending sprees in Europe, including the political consequences, are also to be expected. Hence, will China rule the Western world, similar to fears of a Japanese overtake in late 1980s (just watch Blade Runner)? Maybe these fears are too extreme (yet), but it is crucial to stay alert, especially also in academia.
There has been a lot of speculation about political ‘reform’ in China. The argument is that the CCP has to react and that the people become more demanding – especially when the country faces problems such as growing inequality, slowing growth, ineffective allocation of resources, rampant corruption and a destroyed environment, to name just some of them.
To put it directly, it’s not going to happen! Observers have rightly highlighted the absence of anyone who could be remotely considered a ‘reformer’ in the new Standing Committee. Also we have to remember who and how one gets into the top leadership. Xi and Li and the other members of the new Standing Committee are chosen because they somehow represent the carefully balanced interests of various rivalling party factions and cliques. Moreover the outgoing leadership will not want to install anyone who might hurt their legacy. In such system not those with the greatest charisma or best ideas succeed, but those who could not endanger anyone and who are best connected. This is not the wise and benevolent leadership as some naïve Western observers believe; it is the result of a system which breeds conformity and mediocrity.
We shall also not forget that there has been absolutely no progress on the political front over the past decade. Indeed the situation is worse than under Jiang Zemin and this despite the great hopes that were connected with Premier Wen Jiabao ten years ago. He was the aide of disgraced Premier Zhao Ziyang and joined him when Zhao spoke to the demonstrators on the Tiananmen Square in 1989. Days later Zhao was ousted and tanks moved into the square. Wen talked a lot about democracy, preferably to the foreign press, but no actions followed. No wonder he is referred to as ‘the best actor’ among some Chinese. If even the allegedly most liberal politician of his generation did nothing for political reform, what is there to expect from the generation of ‘princelings’ – children of famous party leaders who led a privileged life and were groomed to become the ruling elite?
It is very difficult to envision that political reform is on the agenda and indeed it might never be. Yet, we shall not forget that it is the CCP ruling, a mafia-like regime that, like any communist party, will do everything to stay in power and if this means pretending to embrace some form of democracy it might even do this. However one look at Hong Kong and you will see what this version of ‘democracy’ means…
Dr Keading has studied and taught in the Greater China region for six years and is member of the Hong Kong Transition Project, the EU-China Network and an Associate Fellow with the European Center of Contemporary Taiwan Studies. You can’t follow him on Twitter…