Foreign Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence from Professor Kerry Brown, Director, China Studies Centre, University of Sydney, and Associate Fellow, Asia Programme, Chatham House

On 15 November 2012 in Beijing, on the closing day of the 18th Party Congress, the new Politburo Standing Committee was announced. In March 2013, the government changes accompanying this followed. China now has a wholly new leadership line up.

There were four immediate striking features of the new line up:

the number had been reduced from nine in the preceding 17th Party Congress to seven;

the age of five of the new leadership means that they would need to retire at the next Congress in 2017 as they will have already passed the 68-year old threshold disbarring them from reappointment;

four of the seven have been classified as more conservative than liberal in their instincts; and

four of the seven have authentic links directly or through marriage to former senior leaders.

Working out the political logic behind the reduction from nine to seven has proved difficult because of the highly opaque way in which this final line up had been decided. The Party used a combination of relying on precedents established through previous congresses, and in particular the methods used in the 2002 and 2007 leadership changes, one generational and one intergenerational. But it also used what was described in some Party material as innovative intra-Party democratic methods. The new line up coming from this complex process has been presented as a band of leaders who can work in a unified, consensual way, and which can, most importantly, gain legitimacy beyond the bounds of the tiny group in the Party that have elevated them to the wider society beyond, 93% of whom are not Party members.

Despite these gestures towards consultation, we see a Politburo super-elite who despite all the superficial appearance of being promoted after consultation and consensus building, are, in the manner of their appointment and the presentation of it, an expression of raw political power. These people are in their positions because they have the support of immensely powerful networks within the core power-centre of the modern Party. They are also there because they are seen as the best bet for the Party to now face its menu of immense challenges. These were outlined by Xi Jinping in his brief comments on 15th November—continuing to deliver growth and prosperity, bridging the gap between the Party and those it rules, dealing with its own internal governance and in particular corruption, and trying to come to terms with the country’s increasing international obligations.

We need to resist easy talk of factions and leftist versus rightist elements in the Party elite. The seven-strong line up shows us that we are now looking at a networked Party, where leaders in their careers build up political capital for promotion through their provincial, ministerial, central and business careers. State owned enterprises, for instance, remain a strong power base for leadership. In this “marketised” power environment, vested interests are bound up with particular enterprises, institutions and Party organs. These are recruited in to support, or sometimes to oppose, particular elite careers.

For Xi Jinping, the “networked leader” has been part of the narrative presented overtly and subliminally to the domestic and international public. He is seen as someone with experience at all levels of government, from village upwards, as someone who has links to the military as a junior private secretary to a military leader in the early 1980s, the Party schools, and through leadership in the major provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang and the city of Shanghai. He is someone who is not dogged by dark rumours about his past in the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 in the same way as the felled Bo Xilai was, but who was regarded as belonging to a victimised family at that time who were properly rehabilitated in the late 1970s with the return of Deng Xiaoping’s leadership. Li Keqiang similarly has networks both provincially, but also through the Communist Youth League.

This is a networked leadership, and within this a tribal and family linked leadership. Rumours of a narrative of dynastic clashes between the Bo Xilai, Wen Jiabao, and Xi Jinping family surfaced throughout 2012 and had their apogee in the claim that the expose of the Wen family financial wealth documented in the New York Times in October was aided by allies of Bo’s family. This probably overstates the level of manipulation and control in elite politic dynamics in China. But family links remain immensely influential, with clear connections to parts of the Party-industrial and military complex. The challenges of how elite leaders try to restrain their family from taking commercial opportunities are very real. Family links with this networked leadership are the least understood but probably one of the most influential parts of the dynamics they operate in.

For all seven leaders, there are two striking features of their careers:

They are utterly beholden and committed to the Party for all that they have achieved, and have never uttered or done anything that might detract from its right to have a monopoly on power in China.

None have made any comments or done anything in their former careers to indicate that they believe in western style democratisation of the Party and its processes. For this leadership, they will be as wedded to cautiousness as their predecessors, both because of the immense constraints around them and because there is nothing to be gained at the moment from systemic bold policy moves. They will hold to general policy continuity rather than policy disruption and maintain the line set out in the 12th Five Year Programme which runs to 2015.

The appointment of Xi Jinping as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), two years before expected, was also a surprise. Xi is regarded as the one leader of the new seven who has links with the military from his career in the early 1980s in the general offica of the central military in Beijing. With the Party position, that of the CMC chair, and president, Xi Jinping has been given the full suite more quickly than any other leader since the late 1970s. This in itself is a powerful statement of elite confidence in and support for the new leadership.

For foreign affairs and the issue of the military and Taiwan there is nothing, at the moment, for this new leadership to gain from changing the parameters set out by their predecessors. For Taiwan, the strategy under Hu Jintao of deeper economic links and covert support for the KMT who are more close to the Mainland has paid good dividends and, barring elections in 2016 returning a more vocally independence supporting Democratic People’s Party candidate (unlikely), for the new leaders to mess with this would antagonise Hu and a situation widely seen as being stable. Military leaders would have no strategic reason to clash with the politicians on this. For broader foreign policy issues, just as with domestic ones, while presentation might change, for the short to medium term it is unlikely that the defensive and assertive mindset of this leadership will. They continue to wish to have more strategic space from the US—this underlies Xi’s statement while in the US in early June that “the Pacific is big enough for both of us.” But China’s assertive and brittle diplomatic behaviour over the last four years has made it more isolated than it should be, with a highly ambiguous narrative for the rest of the world—economic opportunity, but military, security and political unknown. Communicating more clearly China’s vision of itself in the world will be a major task for the new leaders. Diversifying their diplomatic links is also important—this might explain Xi’s visit to Russia and Africa after he became president.

For economic policy since Li Keqiang has taken over as Premier in charge of macroeconomic policy, the commitment is to double GDP by 2020 to create a middle income society with a per capita GDP of USD 12,000. Li himself has stated that the country needs to see fast sustainable growth. That means growth rates before 2015 of around 7% per year. It also means attacking the great structural imbalances in the economy—low domestic consumption, low service sector as a proportion of GDP, low urban to rural ration (though this is changing rapidly) and high capital investment. A social welfare system and an integrated housing market are two ways to lift consumption. Foreign companies wanting to conquer the domestic Chinese market will be seen as allies in this task of raising consumption. The main issue is to do everything to improve market access.

This relates to the green economy commitments in the current Five Year Programme. Provincial leaders have now been clearly told that green GDP targets will become “hard” ones, although there is lack of clarity about how to measure these. The intellectual argument about the impact of climate change on the environment and on long term sustainable economic growth has largely been won. Ironically, China is a policy less infected by the US by climate change scepticism and denial. China has also under the former leadership progressed a long way from Copenhagen in 2010 to seeing that even greater pressure on developed countries will not be enough to solve its own issues. The quandary for the new leadership is to accelerate greening while maintaining high growth. Their technology and innovation programmes will need radical reform to move from the rhetoric of commitment to greening to the implementation. The formulation of the key strategies for the 13th Five Year Plan will begin now. It will be in this process, a sort of long campaign within a new leadership culminating in 2016, that we will see the real technical response to greening.

What has the “learning Marxist Party” learned from this succession? Through the issues around Bo Xilai, and through the scandal of Ling Jihua, former Chief of the General Office of the Central Committee and institutionally in charge of the pre-planning of the Congress, who was moved sideways to head the United Front Department after the discovery of his son’s death in a car crash with two women in March this year, the Party has learned that a gap now exists in terms of what it regards as its moral function in society and how it is viewed by the wider public. This is a significant paradox. The Party that rose to power representing the United Front for workers and peasants, overthrowing elitist power structures and striving for equality and sovereign dignity for China is now regarded as the fiefdom of vested interests, run by a clearly defined party aristocracy, of which Xi Jinping, Yu Zhengsheng, Li Keqiang and Wang Qishan are members through direct lineage or (for the last two) marriage. Xi’s declaration against corruption on 15 November therefore is a critical issue, because it strikes at the heart of the Party’s views to itself of its own legitimacy. Wang Qishan’s leadership of the Central Discipline and Inspection Commission is also important, as he is regarded as one of the most effective of the new leaders. Over the last six months, Xi had revisited the issue of combating corruption, and built on his interests in the past to restoring the moral mandate of the Party to rule and be looked up to. But in a system where Party interests are intimately linked to sources of vast profit, and the control of goods that deliver this, and where most of the networks of elite political figures can leverage their links for commercial gain, beyond abstract declarations of good intent, it is hard to see hard-edged outcomes from Xi’s language that address some of these enormous issues of vested interest.

In terms of policy, the new leadership operates in restrained circumstances, with commitments that cut across the transitional period contained in macroeconomic documents like the Five Year Programme, and in the clear statements made by Hu Jintao in his 8 November speech at the end of his time as Party Secretary. These carry across to the new leadership. They broadly declare the focal areas to be the need for social management, for investment in a national welfare system to address inequality, for measures to create an innovative economy with greater service sector components, to dealing with sustainability, food security and energy supply. There is an awareness however that society is beset with too much contention, and that the costs of policing this (in 2011, the internal security budget was USD111 billion, USD5 billion more than defence) are unsustainable. The Party has to find a better way of appealing to the broad public to support its policies beyond wealth creation and coercion.

These are highly general commitments. This leadership have space in terms of what they do at a micro level to implement policy, and in terms of how they communicate that policy. Xi Jinping’s leadership have asked that official speeches are delivered in more natural language, and that less of the dreaded “Hu” stilted language of ideological diktat is served up. Presentation is immensely important in selling policy, and for this leadership, the structural issues of how to mobilize a society which is undergoing immense and complex economic and socio political change is more critical than is supposed. The later comments of Wen Jiabao delivered the rhetoric and soundbites of the need for more predictability in society through rule of law and legality. This leadership now need to grapple with implementing that.

They will not jettison ideology as the refusal to take reference to Mao Zedong Thought from the Party Constitution during the Plenum meeting in early October 2012 made clear. But they can express that ideology in a different and more human way, in particular looking to close the gap between a highly trained leadership elite and the society they are meant to guide and show moral and political leadership in. Xi Jinping’s deployment of the symbolic resources of his own history and of his own vision and linguistic register therefore do matter.

This is a leadership of political scientists, historians, economists, lawyers and social scientists. The era of the technocrats has come to an end. It is a leadership who are diverse in terms of the regional experience within China, having links from Shanxi, to Hainan, to Zhejiang and Henan, but whose sole international experience is through Zhang Dejiang’s period studying in North Korea. This is a leadership set up therefore for a domestic agenda, who will resist attempts to pull them more deeply into international affairs which are seen as lying beyond their national interests, despite the very real pressures that will be put on them to do this. It is a leadership brought from a very limited intellectual culture (male, Han, aged 58 to 68) but which is probably as diverse as the Party in its current situation might be able to manage. The fundamental question is, therefore, whether the best that the Party can offer is, in terms of the immense challenges facing it now, going to prove to be good enough. While they are probably more interested in hearing new ideas about how to approach their immense governance issues, they are in no mood on issues like Tibet, human rights, or their own internal reform, to hear lectures from outsiders who they view as tainted by the global financial crisis since 2008. They view international relations now in a more emboldened way, and in ways which show their awareness of their new economic status and how this needs to be reflected in the way in which the world talks to and engages with China.

The structure of the Central Committee which was announced along with the new Politburo and Standing Committee is unchanged. 50% of its membership are new. But the bias towards provincial leadership positions (a fifth), military positions (around 22 seats), academic and state owned enterprises, and national ministry positions as the standard components of the Committee remains the same. Representation from people who state that their home province in Guangdong remains high. In terms of gender, age and ethnicity, however, this Central Committee remains almost wholly similar to the last one. This is a sign that underneath the bolder presentation of reformist intention towards corruption, economic policy, and use of political language, the CCP in the 21st century lives with the paradox that a movement founded in revolution has become, in its seventh decade in power, self-preserving, highly cautious, led by people with remarkably little diversity, and, dare it be said, extremely conservative.

24 June 2013

Prepared 27th August 2013