September 10, 2012

Beijing’s Prancing Horses

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Power is up for grabs this fall. Mankind’s Machiavellian best are in action in not just the United States but also in China and South Korea. Besieged parliamentary coalitions in Japan and India might soon be facing general elections.

This global festival of lame-ducks might explain many of the international tiffs in the last few weeks. The explanations can be divided into three major strands. First, governments are manipulating nationalistic passions to divert domestic attention from issues that might lose incumbents the election. This might explain the ratcheting up of tensions between South Korea and Japan over the disputed Dokdo / Takeshima islands. Second, foreign actors are taking advantage of domestic political compulsions to advance their own agenda. For instance, there are reports that suggest Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu might attack Iranian nuclear facilities in an “October surprise.” This would force Obama into backing the aggression. The third strand invokes multiple competing sources of power within a polity to explain international bickering. Analyses that attribute China’s aggressive posturing in the South China Sea to tensions between the People’s Liberation Army and the civilian apparatus are examples of this.

These power transitions, however, are interesting to follow even absent their relationship to foreign policy adventurism. Particularly gripping is the least visible transition taking place in the People’s Republic of China, scheduled for next month at the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It’s no coincidence that China’s behavior is often attributed to internal factionalism. China’s transition differs from the earlier examples of the United States and South Korea in one obvious way; it will not be the result of a democratic election. Each leader derives legitimacy in such a system not from a voting constituency but a narrower group, for instance, the PLA.

China also differs in one other crucial manner — norms of leadership transition are weak. The absence of democracy does not necessitate the absence of these norms, but this is the case in China. The CCP regime has carried out exactly one successful, peaceful, transfer of power at the highest level; that was in 2002 when the current team of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao became General Secretary and Premier respectively. The combined absence of popular franchise and long standing transition norms means that when the time comes to hand over power, factions will jostle not just for positions in the new administration, but also for the status of their faction.

The promotion of Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao’s successor as the Secretary General of the CCP is likely to proceed as planned. The transition, however, also involves filling numerous other powerful positions. China’s transitions are generational transitions, the incoming generation being the fifth generation of leaders in the People’s Republic. The turnover, as a result, is very large with seven of the nine members in the CCP’s highest decision making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, due for retirement.

The February 2012 scandal involving Bo Xilai, former mayor of Chongqing, is indicative of how far up the chain the factional jostling might go. He was stripped of his influential position after a drama that involved his police chief, Wang Lijun, fleeing to the local U.S. consulate to reveal the role of Bo’s wife in a British businessman’s murder. Not too long ago, however, Bo was in strong contention for being promoted to the PSC. He had become known for cultivating a strong local following in his town of 30 million with populist policies and public ceremony reminiscent of the Mao era. Further, as the son of a former revolutionary leader, he is a member of the prominent “princeling” political grouping. These are the sons and daughters, wealthy and corrupt, of former Party bigwigs. Their nepotism and brazen display of wealth has alienated them from numerous CCP elders. The bizarre manner of Bo’s ouster suggests some political considerations were at play. The scandal affected every fish in the pond; fellow princeling Xi Jinping had to distance himself from Bo, with the latter having often boasted about his close ties to the Xi family. In a promotion system that relies heavily on seniority, his removal also set in motion a series of other personnel changes.

The schism between this informal bloc of revolutionary babies and the more self-made, often technocratic, Party members like Hu Jintao is important but far from being the only one. Another prominent one is between elements in the PLA seeking to restore military influence in the Politburo to its earlier high and those who oppose military encroachment. Yet more factions have been created because of the patronage networks maintained by individual CCP leaders. With Xi’s place as the next General Secretary cemented relatively firmly, some reports suggest that Hu Jintao is attempting to protect his legacy by filling the new Standing Committee with loyalists. He has not been entirely successful, with two Hu protégés having lost favor earlier this month. The first setback unraveled in a manner almost as bizarre as the sequence of events that led to Bo Xilai’s departure. Ling Jihua, the candidate in question, was demoted after his son was involved in a fatal Ferrari crash on the streets of Beijing.

The list of challenges facing Xi Jinping is enormous by any measure. The CCP regime remains reliant on rapid economic growth to maintain legitimacy among large sections of the population. That fact, combined with the economy’s reliance on exports and collapsing demand in the U.S. and the European Union, means that questions of growth will be on top of Xi’s agenda. Even if does succeed in boosting domestic demand and reducing reliance on foreign investment, he will have to deal with the growing distance between the Chinese masses and a political elite increasingly seen as corrupt, insular and brash. That he himself belongs to a fabulously wealthy, Ferrari owning family of former revolutionaries (his wife’s sisters are worth more than US$ 120 million) might make his job harder.

Kirat Singh is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at ksingh@cornellsun.com. Evaluating the Discontents appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Kirat Singh