China experts have touted the selection of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) for a post on the Central Military Commission (CMC) at this weekend’s plenary meeting as key to the question of who will become China’s next leader in 2012.
For the past three years, it has been widely expected that Xi would ascend to this senior post overseeing the military, cementing his succession. Xi’s failure to rise would have meant foreign analyses of Chinese politics rest on flawed assumptions. The high stakes riding on how we interpret Chinese intentions necessitates revisiting the foundations of how we analyze China.
The gap between expectations and results on succession politics indicates that foreign observers overestimate their knowledge of how Chinese palace politics work. At the end of the day, China watchers may well be right about Xi and the importance of his being selected for the CMC. But we should remember that this round of succession is unique, making implicit reliance on precedents from the last changeover uncertain if not misleading. Unlike the current president and his predecessor, whoever takes the reins in 2012 will not have the imprimatur of the father of the reform era, Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平).
The most problematic issue with uncertain assumptions is that the US and like-minded countries are basing policy toward China on the premise that they can divine Chinese intentions as they change. The US policy is to make China a responsible international player through a “hedging” strategy — softly encouraging Beijing while planning against future contingencies. With an accurate feedback mechanism, policymakers can then calibrate policy accordingly to guide Beijing toward responsibility. The required feedback comes from clandestine intelligence as well as openly produced analysis. Only a deep understanding will enable the parsing Chinese intentions to make this policy toward China anything more than a blunt instrument.
The lure of this approach encourages analysts to overemphasize the institutionalization and predictability of Chinese politics.
First, we have quickly settled on a succession battle between the elitist, princelings led by Xi against the social harmonists led by Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) protege Li Keqiang (李克強). The false dichotomy disguises the elite character of both groups. Chinese politics is still a family business even if aspiring -leaders can be adopted or married into the families of the Chinese -Communist Party (CCP) elite. Hiding within this dichotomy are old factional rivalries, personal animosities and policy differences. Worse still, the simplistic choice between princelings and reformers falsely suggests we should choose sides, presuming those who have risen to the highest ranks within the CCP can still be “good guys.” Although easy to understand, this simple division of Chinese leadership choices probably hinders rather than helps.
Second, we focus on the CMC because Mao Zedong (毛澤東) taught us that political power comes out of the barrel of a gun. A civilian vice chair gives someone apart from Hu a justifiable reason to develop a power base within the military. If Hu is unable to appoint his chosen successor, then he could choose to deny others this position. Ultimately disruptive to Chinese civil--military relations, the effect would be to make Hu the indispensable leader, forcing his retention after 2012. Yet even this speculation rests on the assumption that a CMC position is more important than understanding the political factions within the military and which civilian factions they support. Historically, those factional relationships are more important.
Finally, China watchers are relying on a tenuous precedent — the comparative calm passage of power to Hu — that may or may not be representative of a new underlying principle. The -Cultural Revolution may have taught the CCP leaders of this generation the dangers of ideological extremism, but Hu’s moves against rivals such as former Shanghai Party secretary Chen Liangyu (陳良宇) have parallels to previous power struggles. It is not yet clear whether Hu’s peaceful rise is a precedent or an exception.
We should consider the possibility that Hu has an interest in delaying as long as possible Xi’s succession. Xi already has the right credentials to become the next leader. His portfolio, however, is laced with moving targets and uncertain measures of success. This makes him vulnerable to criticisms regardless of how well or poorly he performs. To make an effective judgment about Hu’s intentions and the future of Chinese leadership will require the kind of detailed analysis of factional power bases and how power is exercised that has been missing since Hu assumed power in 2002.
Peter Mattis is studying for a master’s degree in security studies at Georgetown University with five years of experience in research and analytic positions on China-related issues.
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