The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 18th Party Congress that has just concluded in Beijing offered a rare chance to observe what is happening behind the scenes in Chinese politics.
China has a non-democratic regime and the transfer of power at the highest level is an incredibly sensitive time for the authorities. It is also fraught with difficulties.
In 1989, following the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the party’s old guard held an impromptu and unofficial meeting during which it decided upon the next two generations of leaders, Jiang Zemin (江澤民), party general secretary from 1993 to 2003, and Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), party general secretary from 2003 to the present. This decision was based upon traditional, rather than institutional authority within the party.
The 18th Party Congress could be said to be the first transfer of power based upon neither charismatic nor traditional authority, but rather based on background factional jostling.
Another aspect that sets this power transfer apart from previous ones is that it is no longer set against a backdrop of rapid economic growth. The new leader will not be able to put off addressing the stark contradictions that exist within the country. He will also be faced with a depressed global economy.
Opinion on the direction China should take is polarized within academic circles, society and even within the CCP itself, reflected in the harsh struggle over policy lines favored by different individuals within the party leadership.
It is against this backdrop that a rather unusual sequence of events occurred last year. In April, following the annual National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress, there was the incident involving Wang Lijun (王立軍) and Bo Xilai (薄熙來), which gave some amazing insights into the infighting among senior party leadership.
Then there was the case of Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠), exposing the absurdities of inflated powers, and their abuse, within the CCP’s Political and Legal Committee.
Meanwhile, Bo is being kept out of the public eye as part of the shuanggui (雙規) extralegal detention and interrogation system for disgraced cadres. There has been an information blackout on how he is being dealt with.
However, in that short time the international media have been reporting how members of Xi Jinping’s (習近平) extended family have huge assets, just before Xi himself disappeared from public view, reportedly due to back problems.
Not long after Xi finally re-emerged came the news that the nominations of the seven new members of the Politburo Standing Committee had been confirmed in a meeting between Hu, Xi and Jiang, and just after this the decision was made to punish Bo with shuangkai (雙開), double expulsion — from the party and from his administrative post. Just when everyone thought the excitement was over, another wave of incidents occurred.
Anti-Japanese protests erupted throughout China over the territorial dispute involving the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkakus in Japan — with Chinese chanting the slogan: “The Diaoyutais belong to China.” Curiously, this slogan was sometimes followed with “and Bo Xilai belongs to the people.”
More recently, and more shockingly, was the report in the New York Times that family members of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) had amassed a fortune. The Washington Post also reported that Xi’s “back problems” were the result of his being hit by a chair when a meeting of the second generation “princelings” got out of hand.
It has all been rather shambolic. The whole affair gives the impression there is a lot of factional power games and jostling going on in the background.
So what does all this reveal?
The handover of power to Xi was hardly plain sailing, and if this does not speak of a serious internal rift among the party leadership then it at least shows that there is disagreement there. More importantly, for something as crucial as the handover of power at the very top of the party to have been beset in this way, with so many things going wrong and the authorities walking around on tenterhooks, it suggests that the legitimacy of political power in China is being called into question and subjected to serious scrutiny.
Both China’s domestic media and the international press are calling for this turbulent state of affairs to be addressed and for the CCP to instigate political reform.
This idea is also being raised by the party media itself.
So, now that the 18th Party Congress is over, can the party be expected to proceed with the political reform that people want?
Will there be some form of retribution for the Tiananmen Square Massacre? Will suffrage be extended to the public at grassroots elections? Will restrictions be relaxed on emerging social groups? Indeed, will the CCP actually move ahead with so-called party internal democracy?
It is difficult to be optimistic.
Xi and the entire new intake of the Politburo Standing Committee all came up through the same system, supported by this or that faction, making all kinds of compromises on the way up. There has been no institutionalized mechanism for promoting people to positions of authority.
For proper reform to take place, it has to be reform of the various interest groups that already exist within the ruling class. Will Xi be able to touch the special monopolistic status enjoyed by the princelings?
These top leaders derive their authority from the current balance of power: Why on earth would they seek to rock the boat?
The series of struggles recently witnessed have been about them wresting further power for themselves: Nobody is going to enact any reforms that would be detrimental to their own power. Because of the way in which power is shared among CCP members, it is very unlikely that the impetus for reform will come from within the system, and any force from outside of the system is certain to be viewed by the authorities as a challenge and as a destabilizing force. If these forces are not mercilessly suppressed, the fear is that they will just be absorbed or coopted.
There are turbulent times ahead in China now that the 18th Party Congress is over.
Hsu Szu-chien is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica.
Translated by Paul Cooper