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Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? Xi Jinping and the future of political reform

The Super Seven – New members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo

by James Cuffe

Obama’s brief post-election message “Four more years.” became the most forwarded tweet of all time, but we won’t see a similar expression of delight on China’s weibo platform. Although people appreciated Xi Jinping for appearing warmer and more human than Hu Jintao, not a difficult task to be sure, there was less enthusiasm for his policies or for the future direction of political reform. The Party’s new leader received a positive – if cautious – welcome from China watchers and the media, but he is recognised more as a steady hand than as a reformist. The absence of Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao compounds the conservatism of the new team making it extremely unlikely we will see any major reforms over the next five years.

Li was appointed to the CCP Central Organisation Department in 2007 granting him the powers to modify the rules and framework for promotions within the party and is recognised as an advocate for political reform. Wang, through his experiences as Party Secretary of Chongqing and subsequent promotion to Party Secretary of Guangdong province (both regions economic powerhouses) showed him to favour economic reforms that are market orientated and business friendly. With these figures losing out we see political strategist Zhang Dejiang who was trained in economics in North Korea and Zhang Gaoli, a statistician with expertise in the oil industry making the leadership team. Both are supposedly protégés of Jiang Zemin.

Much is being written about Jiang Zemin’s recent public appearances and continued influence at the highest levels of informal politics. His recent appearances and presence at the Party Congress should be considered the norm. As a previous leader he offers a ‘guiding hand’ and ‘sage advice’ during such uncertain political practices – uncertain as the leadership transition process is still not well institutionalised. It suits foreign spectators who do not have full access to the processes that decide the leadership to turn the event into a factional power struggle between two opposing sides. (It is how we play and understand sports.) Examples of this are media reports citing the continued influence of Jiang Zemin represented in the new nominees. Jiang’s authority alternatively seen as an acquiescence by Hu Jintao and a sign of his weakness in the face of the old guard.

Too much can be read into factional support between the candidates. While factional politics is certainly at play, this largely plays out behind closed doors and speculating as to who is on which team can quickly turn analysis into guesswork. It is worth being aware that the seven men who walked out on stage on Thursday will know each other extremely well having worked together and moved in similar political circles for years if not decades. The overlap between factional politics and personal networks ensures that when one is emphasised over the other we will have more attractive, more defined conclusions albeit on far shakier ground. We need to resist the desire for neat answers in order to better understand processes that are not yet fully out in the open.

Liu Yunshan was considered a supporter of Bo Xilai and earlier this year there was a petition calling for Liu’s removal by 16 retired members of the CCP in Yunnan. Yu Zhengshen’s brother defected to the United States in the 1980’s being denounced as a traitor yet both Liu and Yu have made the top seven despite these events. These facts point to the difficulty in knowing how relationships are played out politically within the CCP and at times how the importance of personal networks wins out over both ideology and factional politics.

Wang Qishan appears to be taking the discipline portfolio, a hint that some attempt is being made to tackle corruption, His financial expertise would lend him to reforming the financial sector but as the team appears conservative and his appointment to the disciplinary office might suggest he is better able to enforce some manner of curtailment of the endemic corruption eating the CCP from the inside.

Seven men, no women; to many people the absence of the only female candidate will be a surprise. Liu Yandong ticked all the boxes for a promotion and it is hardly her gender that kept her out in the end. The argument for her inclusion highlighted her contacts to both major political factions, family ties to Jiang Zemin and professional ties to Hu Jintao via the Communist Youth League. With Bo Xilai’s removal there appeared to be a space for contention between her and Wang Yang yet neither in the end were successful. Gender at such a high level of politics with so much at stake is not as relevant as one’s power base and personal networks and ability to command authority. Presumably she was out-manoeuvred or even uninterested in the closing months.

The most interesting aspect of the new line up is the ability for the Xi-Li partnership to bring in a new team in five years time when all but these top two Standing Committee members will have to retire. It allows Xi-Li to enact a real legacy over the fortunes and direction the PRC will take during the next decade. And the next decade is shaping up to be a tumultuous one. The challenges that China faces are many and are changing year on year. At the next Party Congress in 2017 there is a window of opportunity for the leadership to change direction more radically. Their power and authority will have infiltrated the lower echelons of the Chinese political world. In five years time there will be a generational shift in China with those born in the 1980’s entering their late 30’s – not having the memories of China that the current leadership are wary of.

Xi Jinping is all too aware the dangers that mass campaigns and poor governance can bring. During his speech Xi stated: “To be turned into iron, the metal itself must be strong.” – a clear reference to the experiences of those under the Great Leap Forward and his own  experiences. During the Cultural Revolution he was “sent down” to the countryside living in a cave while his father – purged by Mao – spent 16 years imprisoned. A period of history he has referred to as a mood:

In the past when we talked about beliefs, it was very abstract. I think the youth of my generation will be remembered for the fervour of the Red Guard era. But it was emotional. It was a mood. And when the ideals of the Cultural Revolution could not be realised, it proved an illusion.”

– Interview with CCTV in 2003

Such quotes about darks periods of Chinese history show a willingness to engage diplomatically with China’s shadows. Before China can truly enter a new stage of development, China needs to come to terms with her past. Xi has the experience, the memories, and ten more years to do so.

James Cuffe is an anthropologist interested in the impact communications technology has on social change, specifically interested in current developments in China. Currently associated with IES Abroad in Beijing, Irish Institute of Chinese Studies at University College Dublin and Editor of the Journal of International Political Anthropology.

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