The High Stakes of China's Leadership Transition

It's worth wondering whether the Communist Party will still be in charge of China a decade from now.

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People walk in front of a large screen displaying propaganda slogans in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on November 12th, 2012. (David Gray/Reuters)

Just a little more than a week after the American presidential election, China will choose its own leaders in its own highly secretive way entirely inside the Communist Party. What's at stake for China--and for the rest of the world--is not just who will fill which leadership posts until 2022 (two five year terms are the norm) but whether, ten years from now, the Communist Party itself will still rule China.

Most of the overseas reporting about the turnover has focused on predicting the line-up of new leaders and trying to anticipate in what direction they will take the country. This is a near impossible task because the aspirants have hidden their policy views to avoid making mistakes that could derail their ambitions. But there are some structural features of the turnover in plain sight and are just as consequential for China's future. The politicians who lead the party are crafting the process to save the Party and protect their own interests as well. Here is a short guide to a few of the hard choices China's current leaders will be making in this week's selection process.

Leadership Succession is the Achilles Heel of Authoritarian Political Systems

Figuring out how to transfer power at the top in the absence of an open and legitimate leadership selection process is the biggest political challenge China faces. Most authoritarian governments are brought down by splits in the leadership, not by revolts of the masses. According to political scientist Milan Svolik of the University of Illinois, two thirds of the authoritarian leaders who were overthrown from 1946-2008, were deposed by élite insiders. The recent Bo Xilai affair and the apparent internal differences over how to punish Bo have made Party leaders particularly jittery about the dangers of internecine conflicts. If they don't get the power-sharing process right during this transition, the Party might not survive the next decade. Bitter rivalries at the top could break out into the open during the next domestic or foreign policy crisis, especially if it stirs public protests too. China's leaders still remember the lesson of the 1989 Tiananmen crisis: What brought the PRC to the brink of collapse was the split in the leadership over how to respond to the protests, not the protests themselves.

The rules of the political game in China are in flux as the Communist Party struggles to maintain élite unity and popular support in a society dramatically transformed by market economics and increased connection to the outside world. After Mao Zedong died, Deng Xiaoping tried to stabilize Party rule by institutionalizing a system of term limits and mandatory retirement. Getting Jiang Zemin to step down as general secretary in 2002 was a significant achievement--the first time a major communist leader left office peacefully--and no one seriously doubts that Hu Jintao will follow precedent to leave office after serving two terms.As they compete with one another, however, Chinese politicians are making and remaking the rules, most of which are neither written down nor publicly articulated. They sometimes expand the size of the Politburo, China's top governing body of roughly two dozen, and of its inner core the Politburo Standing Committee to balance the power of different groups. The upper age limit for appointment to the leadership bodies has been lowered over time--it is now sixty-seven--as the leaders have used it as a convenient tactic for eliminating rivals and reducing the number of eligible contenders.

Size of the Top Leadership Body

Anyone hoping for a revival of economic reforms in China should pay close attention to whether the collective leadership is reduced in size from nine to seven members. China is ruled by a collective leadership in the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), an executive body that meets once a week. In 2002, the committee was expanded from the previous size (five, six, or seven) to nine members, each one responsible for a specific portfolio (economy, legislation, anti-corruption, internal security, propaganda, etc.).

A smaller leading group would improve the efficiency and decisiveness of high-level decision-making. The Chinese policy process operates according to a consensus rule, which can bog the system down if no one at the top is willing and able to make the final call. Both CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have been criticized within China for being weak leaders in this respect. No one wants to see the rise of another dictator like Mao Zedong who could go off half-cocked with rash schemes like the Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution. But the challenge is to create a collective leadership that functions effectively and authoritatively to restrain the parochial interest groups within the state, military, and Party that over the past decade have been hijacking policy to feather their own nests.

A smaller PBSC should do better at overcoming vested interests to pursue much needed economic reforms. And it should make for a steadier and more prudent foreign policy as well.

The trade-off, however, is that narrowing the apex of the pyramid to seven aggravates the power-sharing problem. Right now eight members in the Politburo, the twenty-member body just below the Standing Committee, are eligible by age to be promoted. If the Standing Committee has only seven slots, then in addition to Xi Jinping (next General Secretary) and Li Keqiang (next Premier) who already are members of the Politburo Standing Committee, only five of the eight contenders can be appointed to slots. (It is also possible for an unusually promising star who is not yet a Politburo member to helicopter up into the Standing Committee.) Will the three whose ambitions are denied go quietly into the political wilderness, or will they become disgruntled losers who act out by trying to mobilize a popular following as Bo Xilai did when he was campaigning for promotion? The risk of disgruntled losers is heightened by the absence of an open, fair and binding selection process.

Presented by

Susan Shirk

Susan L. Shirk is the chair of the 21st Century China Program and Ho Miu Lam Professor of China and Pacific Relations at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California-San Diego.

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