By the tightly controlled standards of the Chinese Communist Party, the 18th Party Congress was a remarkable bit of political chaos. The run-up saw evidence of a series of vicious political struggles at the highest level. The one that received the greatest attention was the expulsion of regional leader, Bo Xilai, and the trial of his wife for murder. But there were other events like the Ferrari car crash scandal that signalled the declining influence of the last leader, Hu Jintao. That the actual dates of the Congress were delayed and the size of the all-powerful standing committee was unclear until the Congress was over and the new leader, Xi Jinping, was anointed only heightened a sense of ferment under a button-down polity.
There has long been a group of doomsayers who have argued the Chinese political system is so out of sync with its modern economy that, inevitably, the world’s number two power will fall victim to its own contradictions. This is almost certainly untrue. The Chinese Communist Party faces no serious opposition within the country and its economic accomplishments have been so enormous that it enjoys widespread support among its population. But it is mediaeval in the sense that its system of political succession is closer to that of a street gang than a superpower-in-the-making. Its obsession with stamping out dissent and controlling social communication leads outsiders to assume China’s polity is weaker rather than stronger than it seems.
But the real source of fragility is that China’s faction battles make it increasingly difficult for each leader to push through the necessary economic and, to a lesser degree, political reforms that the country needs. There is an almost complete consensus within the leadership that the Chinese economy needs to adjust to a period of less than double digit growth. Or that these changes include avoiding yet another real estate bubble, finding a means to wean growth off the traditional investment-based engine and find means to keep its small-and-medium enterprises ready for a less friendly international and domestic labour environment. Xi Jinping or Jiang Zemin or Bo Xilai — there would have been little difference among the three on the diagnosis.
The real issue is the quality of the doctor and his ability to weld together a functional team. That is where China seems to be struggling. Since Deng Xiaoping, each successive leader takes a longer time to consolidate power and fend off the interference of his predecessor. Mr Xi seems to coming in with the weakest possible hand with barely a few votes in the standing committee loyal to him. This will be the real challenge for Mr Xi. As party general secretary and later president he will wield enormous power within China. The test will be his ability to push through policies despite the strength of faction that continues in the party — as was evident in the run-up to the Congress.