Family ties and fraternizing are the keys to power in China

The Chinese Communist Party likes to brag about its harmonious party promotion system, but in reality it has actually created a ‘meritocracy of mediocrity’

By Edward Wong  /  NY Times News Service, BEIJING

Wed, Nov 21, 2012 - Page 9

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.

“Xi Jinping himself didn’t come to power because of outstanding political achievements,” said Pu Zhiqiang (浦志強), a rights lawyer, who added that he believed the new leadership was “quite mediocre.”

Just as important as family connections and demonstrated party loyalty is the ability to cultivate China’s top leaders. Five members of the standing committee are considered allies of Jiang Zemin (江澤民), the party leader who stepped down in 2002, and the others have ties to his successor and rival, President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). At least one, Shanghai party boss Yu Zhengsheng (俞正聲), is also closely aligned with the family of Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), the supreme leader who appointed both Jiang and Hu.

Jiang was the dominant force shaping the seven-member standing committee this year. Old loyalists were rewarded with seats, beating out several candidates — Wang Yang (汪洋) and Li Yuanchao (李源潮) among them — who were considered more talented or more charismatic.

Li, the head of the Organization Department, “did a lot of things and he’s very smart,” said Zhang Xiaojin (張小勁), a political scientist at Tsinghua University. “But when you do a lot of things, you often have problems.”

The party hierarchy has its defenders. Xinhua, the state news agency, quoted Xie Chuntao (謝春濤), a professor at the Central Party School, as saying: “The new leaders are not ossified or conservative.”

However, other analysts say that most of the standing committee members, whose average age is 63, got there precisely because of their banality, since the system knocks down politicians who stick out too much.

“Normal logic is that based on a meritocracy, whoever is better in terms of performance should be picked,” said Bo Zhiyue (薄智躍), a scholar of Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore.

“But in Chinese politics, they have a logic of reverse selection,” he added. “If A is better than B, then A should be eliminated.”

That anti-meritocracy logic was at work even in the assigning of portfolios. Many political insiders say that of the seven men, Wang Qishan, with his years of experience in the finance sector, would be the most able to take on day-to-day management of China’s economy. However, they said he was shunted aside to be head of an anti-corruption commission because Vice Premier Li Keqiang (李克強), the second-ranked party member and designated heir to the title of government premier, which carries overall responsibility for the economy, and other leaders feared sharing that power with the confident Wang would cause friction.

“It’s sort of absurd,” said Wu Jiaxiang (吳稼祥), once an adviser to Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), the party chief purged during the 1989 student uprising. “It shows how power games can distort the arrangements.”

Li, though well educated, failed to stand out while governing provinces; in fact, as party chief of Henan province, he was responsible for trying to cover up one of China’s worst health scandals.

Yet, through careful cultivation of Hu, he nimbly climbed the political ladder. Like other ambitious politicians who come from more humble backgrounds, he forged patron links to Hu after joining the Chinese Communist Youth League.

“In China, if I promote you, then on major issues you’re supposed to heed me,” one former official and Youth League member said. “I’ve seen it myself. When people make decisions now, people don’t refer to principles or ideals, but to what will benefit their boss.”

In theory, the Chinese Communist Party has a performance-based evaluation system that determines which officials are qualified for promotion. Those include targets on economic growth, extinguishing potential protests and population control for the territories under their watch.

However, a study by three scholars, published in February in American Political Science Review, found that patronage networks were more important than performance measures. Most surprising was that even meeting the target for economic growth paled in importance next to patron-client ties.

The authors wrote that cadre management institutions “delivered promotions to followers of senior party leaders” and that there was “no relationship between growth performance and party ranking, and a strong relationship between factional ties and rank.”

The overwhelming dominance of ethnic Han men in the party’s upper levels also undermines the argument that the cream rises to the top, regardless of gender, ethnicity or family background. Of the 205 full members of the new Central Committee, only 5 percent are women. The 25-member politburo did double its female representation, though — by going from one to two women.