Collective leadership is the key to understanding the dynamics of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The 17th Congress of the CPC, which concluded on October 21 in Beijing, showed that General Secretary Hu Jintao managed to push his agenda in some areas, but faced resistance in others. President Hu and the genial, ever-smiling Premier Wen Jiabao, as expected, got second terms in office. Both, however, will demit public and party office in 2012.
Most reports and analysts argue that Hu was unable to ensure that his protégé, Li Keqiang, 52, elected to the standing committee of the all-powerful politburo, would be his successor when the 18th party congress takes place in 2012. Li is being challenged by Xi Jinping (54), till recently Shanghai party secretary, who has the backing of the Jiang Zemin-Zeng Qinghong faction of the CPC. Jiang, who handed over power to Hu in 2002, may be in the background, but is still considered influential in the party. However, Hu’s theory of “scientific development” has been enshrined in the party constitution, elevating him to a leadership level similar to that of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.
“The leadership line-up that emerged is not one of monolithic unity behind Hu. Backstabbing and policy disagreements may dominate the political process during the next five years,” wrote Pierre F. Landry, political scientist at Yale University, in an article posted on www.yaleglobal.yale.edu. “Hu Jintao can only muster three votes in the [nine-member] standing committee of the party politburo. The remaining belong to the Jiang Zemin faction,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, China specialist at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Given that communist parties and their working are essentially opaque in nature, any analysis of the CPC and its congress must keep in mind the fact that information to the outside world only trickles out in driblets of what the party is planning and doing. One thing is clear: the personality cult in the Chinese party has ended with the demise of Deng Xiapoing. It’s unlikely, given the scorching pace at which China is growing and the increasingly complex demands on the country’s leadership, that the party will return to having one single leader. In that sense, the CPC seems to be following the lead taken by the Vietnamese Communist Party, where the personality cult began and ended with Ho Chi Minh.
At a time of such growth and rising inequalities, the Chinese party itself is aware of the challenges that the rapid expansion of the economy brings. “Balance is now a central concern” in the CPC’s new governance philosophy, the official China Daily said in a commentary after the congress. “The single-minded pursuit of growth and efficiency is out.
The new idea is to balance such needs with fairness, ecological well-being, as well as people’s feelings,” it said. For some time now, the Chinese press has been writing extensively on pulling people out of poverty: essentially the party leadership is aware of the dangers that increasing inequalities could pose to social order and party control in China. California University economist Pranab Bardhan recently pointed out that China, which was one of the most equitable countries in the world, is now among the most inequitable of nations.
“Its Gini coefficient — a standard measure of inequality, with zero indicating no inequality and one extreme inequality — for income inequality has now surpassed that of the US. If current trends continue, China may soon reach that of high-inequality countries like Brazil, Mexico and Chile,” he argued.
Bardhan quoted the World Bank to suggest that two-thirds of the total decline in the numbers of poor people in China — below the crude poverty level of $1 a day per capita — between 1981 and 2004 already happened by the mid-1980s, before the big strides in foreign trade and investment happened in the 1990s and beyond. According to World Bank figures, over 135 million Chinese, many in remote and resource-poor areas in the western and interior regions, still have consumption levels below a dollar per day, often without access to clean water, arable land, or adequate health and education services.
Though China and the CPC came out of the Tiananmen square protests of 1989, the issue of democracy and democratic functioning is something that will never really go away. Just before the September 11, 2001 attacks happened, US President George W Bush was absolutely focused on China as a country that had a “different” political system and the need to do something about it.
American foreign policy made a sharp turn and focused then on real and imagined threats about Islamist terrorism. Interestingly, a joint communiqué issued by India, China and Russia after a Foreign Ministers meeting in Harbin last month refers to the three countries having chosen their respective development paths “in accordance with their domestic situation and past experience”. The point being made here is that no political system was superior and Indian democracy was just one of the many variants that existed in the world. China and Russia, in turn, had nothing to be apologetic about when it came to their own political systems.
Military and strategic suspicions about a rising China remain. One thing is, however, clear that the stage of China challenging American power on the global stage is still far away. Beijing speaks out in the interests of say, Iran, but will only go that much and no further in challenging US policies that don’t directly have a bearing on China as a Nation-State.
China’s long-term strategic orientation is intertwined with its economic clout. Its decision to get involved in Africa, for instance, is a sign that China will not only use its position to garner natural resources, but use its cash to build strategic alliances.
As President Hu and the new standing committee begin a second term in office, they will focus within to deal with myriad issues, but also look outwards at China’s role in global affairs. Merit-based engagement with China remains the best option for the rest of the world.