Xi opens generation gap

2012-11-21Asia Times

BEIJING - China, the world's number-two superpower, last week presented to the country and the world its chosen leaders and thus the people who will contribute to global governance. The centerpiece of this presentation was not the naming of a new leader, Party General Secretary Xi Jinping - though he'll have to cope with the leader of the world's first power, US President Barack Obama - but the political transition itself.

The 18th Party Congress ended by marking a significant shift of power to the next generation. Unlike what happened 10 years ago, when outgoing secretary Jiang Zemin remained in charge of the powerful Central Military Commission, this time outgoing president Hu Jintao resigned from all positions.

The significance of this is that Xi should be able to govern alone, out of the shadow of the old generation of leaders. This was the meaning underscored the day after by an official Xinhua report, thanking Hu for his selfless sense of duty.

This shadow has been an important factor over the last decade and possibly often made it too cumbersome to make long-term decisions or to launch new, necessary reforms. This new agility and enhanced decision-making capacity is confirmed by the narrowing of the summit of power, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, which shrank from nine to seven members.

This step had a price: the five new members are all veterans of the Politburo and older than Xi and his number-two, Li Keqiang; they should retire in five years. This will be an obstacle for Xi. Moreover, according to rumors in Beijing, many of the five could be loyal to Jiang, while the younger people are loyal to Hu.

Yet looking at the enlarged Politburo, there are many new faces. Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua, both born in 1963, will likely take over the Chinese leadership in 2022. Then we can see a larger wave of renewal by looking at the Central Committee, where 80% of the 205 members were born after 1950 and nine were born after 1960.

We see a chain of transition of power where the new generation is promoted but held back by elements of the past. We have Xi but also Hu and Jiang’s men; there is innovation and continuity with the past. This should make the chain on transition strong and without breaks of generations and interest groups.

A spirit of "forward, but cautiously" is evident, and that was also the spirit of Xi's inaugural address. He thanked the journalists and said that in the future it is important for China to understand the world and for the world to understand China. He stressed that China's ambition is to have a better life, and therefore it must not make war or get caught up in international incidents.

The words, although reassuring, did not contain a hint of the conference's most anticipated theme: political reform. This is the hot spot for possibly a minority in China and likely a majority outside of China.

The political process is still very opaque. It is not known how the leadership was actually chosen, and beyond the ceremonial vote at the conference we don't know if there are grand electors who vote directly or if leaders give instructions to their followers. We do not know how the vote occurs, who votes, or what is on the ballot.

There is talk of the lingering influence of Jiang Zemin and the men of his generation. The television showed the ancient Song Ping, 95 years old and unique in the Congress wearing his Mao jacket, but the future is not clear. After the retirement of Hu, Jiang, and the others, will they still have influence? And if so, how much? In that case, will the system for selecting leaders change?

These are all unanswered questions that are on the minds of the great American strategists. After the congress however the papers showed only the picture of Hu and Xi shaking hands.

Obama could redefine America's policy toward China, speeding up or slowing down the reorientation of political and military priorities toward Asia. The process is already under way, and an important element in the assessment is the transparency of the Chinese political system.

Can the carefully cultivated system of imperial-Leninist secrets resist the pressure of harmonization with global politics?

In this situation, the careful compromises form a chain from generation to generation, and the current balance between reformers and conservatives may break or strangle growth in China. Perhaps this is the greatest challenge for Xi.  (2012-11-21 Asia Times)


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