To a degree, the new leaders of China named last week have backgrounds that are as uniform as the dark suits and red ties they wore at their coming-out ceremony.
The seven men on the Politburo Standing Committee have forged close relations to previous party leaders, either through their families or institutional networks. They have exhibited little in the way of vision or initiative during their careers. And most have been allies or proteges of Jiang Zemin (江澤民), the octogenarian former party chief.
The Chinese Communist Party and its acolytes like to brag that the party promotion system is a meritocracy, producing leaders better suited to run a country than those who emerge from the cacophony of elections and partisan bickering in full-blown democracies. However, critics, including a number of party insiders, say that China’s secretive selection process, rooted in personal networks, has actually created a meritocracy of mediocrity.
Those who do less in the way of bold policy during their political rise — and expend their energies instead hobnobbing with senior officials over rice wine at banquets and wooing them with vanity-stroking projects — appear to have a greater chance of reaching the ranks of the top 400 or so party officials, the ones with seats on the Central Committee, the politburo or its standing committee. Instead of pure talent, political patronage and family connections are the critical factors in ascending to the top, according to recent academic studies and analysis of the backgrounds of the leaders.
There are growing doubts, even among party elites, over whether such a system brings out those best equipped to deal with the challenges facing this nation of 1.3 billion people, with its slowing economic growth, environmental degradation and rising social instability. A series of recent scandals and revelations that the families of top officials can hold billions of dollars worth of investments have also led to greater scrutiny over the role of patronage.
On Friday last week, at a seminar in Beijng, Li Rui (李銳), a retired official who once served as Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) secretary, said he had urged party leaders to embrace big changes to how they appoint and oversee officials, warning that otherwise there would be more damaging scandals like one that led to the fall this year of Bo Xilai (薄熙來), the once-powerful politician who had risen quickly through the party ranks, largely because his father was one of the party’s “Eight Immortals.”
“Our current model produced the Bo Xilai incident,” he said.
Cheng Li (李成), a scholar of Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a paper published in September that the Chinese political system was one of “weak leaders, strong factions,” and that it suffered from “nepotism and patron-client ties in the selection of leaders.”
Susan Shirk, a professor and former US Department of State official, said on Thursday last week on China File, a Web publication from the Asia Society, that “patronage is the coin of the realm in Chinese elite politics.”
In the US and other Western countries, some prominent political families have certainly wielded power through successive generations — think of the Kennedys or Bushes in the US — but entrenched dynasties and the influence of elders are becoming particularly noteworthy in China. The increasing prevalence of the so-called princelings, those related by birth or marriage to earlier Chinese Communist Party luminaries, is one sure sign that family background plays a decisive role in ascending to power. Four of the new standing committee members, including Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平), come from the red aristocracy. One of them, Vice Premier Wang Qishan (王歧山), who seems to prefer blue ties, married into it.