China’s New Leadership: Not Encouraging, but Not Finished

After a nearly weeklong session, the new Chinese leadership has been unveiled.

It isn’t a surprise, but it is a disappointment for anyone harboring hopes for a new, more positive trajectory in U.S.–China relations. There is no one in the emerging top Chinese leadership who could be counted on as an economic reformer, much less a political reformer. The Party looks to have chosen the status quo—and all that entails for the U.S. The only hope is that this decision is not yet final.

The top body, known as the Political Bureau (or Politburo) Standing Committee (PSC), has been trimmed from nine to seven members. Its members include at least two “princelings,” or children of senior Party leaders: top leader Xi Jinping and apparent number three Zhang Dejiang.

The PSC also has a wielder of state political power in propaganda boss Liu Yunshan (#5) and a wielder of state economic power in Zhang Gaoli (#7). It has a technocrat in Wang Qishan (#6), who will be in charge of Party disciplinary matters.

Wang may be kept quite busy fighting corruption within the Party—a task repeatedly mentioned during the Party congress. It is very hard to see a political reformer in this group.

The PSC does have two members who might push for economic change: second-ranked Li Keqiang and Yu Zhengsheng (#4). Li signed onto a World Bank reform document earlier this year, and Yu is a protege of previous leader Jiang Zemin, who presided over genuine economic reform prior to the current period of Chinese state-led development.

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Li, however, has been executive vice-premier for the economy during this period of statism. Yu’s lofty position is especially intriguing, given that his brother Yu Qiangsheng apparently defected to the United States in the mid-1980s.

There is another reason to hope for economic reform despite the rather stolid PSC lineup. This past week marked the transition in Party leadership. The Party directs policy, but it is the government that ultimately implements policy, and government positions will not be formally assigned until the March 2013 National People’s Congress.

Given the presence of at least two economic reformers (and possibly several more) among the 25-member Politburo, there is still the chance that government positions will be assigned to give reformers control of multiple aspects of the economy. Economic reform may need oxygen, but it’s not yet extinguished.

In the security realm, the situation appears somewhat less sclerotic. There had been some talk of delay, but Hu Jintao stepped down as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in favor of Xi Jinping. So the Chinese military has a streamlined chain of command and cannot play various factions off against each other.

The new leadership, moreover, has elevated a non-ground force commander—former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force commander Xu Qiliang—to one of the vice chairmanships of the CMC. This is the most senior uniformed position in the PLA. The other vice chairman, Fan Changlong, was a military region commander. His elevation marks a two-grade promotion, suggesting either significant ties to top civilian leaders or military brilliance. Both mark a shake-up in the CMC.

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Hanging over every issue is the potential for more serious infighting. After Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, the two most senior members, each of the members of the new PSC will have reached formal retirement age by 2017, when the next Party congress will convene. Xi’s and Li’s own successors are not currently on the PSC and will be placed later.

In practical terms, the position of vice president had been recently used for the heir apparent, but not this time—the head of the Central Party School may be used to signal Xi’s ultimate replacement. So the new group must fairly soon deal with who is to be anointed, raising the possibility that the next five years will see more political jockeying than serious policy initiatives.

For those expecting major policy initiatives, and certainly those hoping for economic or political liberalization, it is likely to be a frustrating period.

Source material can be found at this site.

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