In the US, a momentous transfer of power recently occurred. Yet despite the public’s oft-expressed disgust with the candidates, there was nothing secretive about the process.
China offers a sharp contrast.
An important transfer of power is about to take place there, too. A larger than usual number of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders are to retire later this year. Assuming mandatory retirement ages do not change, 85 of the 205 Central Committee members, 11 of the 25 politburo members and five of seven Politburo Standing Committee members are expected to drive off into the sunset.
Other selections are also to be made. The biggest prize of all is the presumed re-election of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
These contests are as momentous as those in the US, but the process in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is utterly opaque. August is when the leadership elite traditionally leaves the Beijing heat for the nearby seaside resort of Beidaihe to continue its deliberations in more pleasant circumstances.
Nevertheless, much difficult bargaining remains. Why any particular figure advances or falls remains almost impossible to determine.
It is a bad system for the PRC and the rest of the world.
Setting aside issues of democracy and human rights China has the world’s second-largest economy. Beijing now ranks second on the planet for military spending. The PRC has growing financial and political impact around the globe. What happens in China matters everywhere.
Thus, stability and predictability are important virtues. Of course, open political systems often yield unexpected results.
Nevertheless, in the case of both the UK’s Brexit and the election of US President Donald Trump, the possibilities were always there. Polls placed Brexit within striking distance of victory. The possibility of a Trump victory steadily increased as primary elections within the parties concluded.
The respective audiences also knew how to influence the political process. People generally were invested in the elections and perceived the opportunity to hold an unpopular political leadership accountable. In fact, that desire helps account for the unexpected electoral outcomes.
No such possibility exists in China — and that is dangerous for the PRC’s future, particularly the nation’s stability.
Chinese people are growing more sophisticated. They are better educated and have more contact with the outside world. An increasing number travel overseas. People are less likely to accept injustice at the hands of local authorities and even make the lengthy trek to Beijing to demand justice.
Although the Xi government’s broad crackdown against political dissent and human rights activism might temporarily strengthen the CCP’s hold on power, repression is unlikely to suppress popular aspirations toward greater participation in the political process and increased accountability for political leaders for very long. The surest route for future conflict and instability would be for the party to attempt to ignore an increasingly dissatisfied constituency.
Such a system also frustrates outsiders interested in investing in or dealing with the PRC. Investment and trade have become more difficult. Multinational companies have been targeted for unclear reasons and without means of recourse. Fear of prosecution has slowed the wheels of government and commerce by ending the corruption that traditionally lubricated the political process.
The lack of clarity and predictability also affects international relations. Much is at risk in Asia. North Korea is under sanction, Taiwan leans toward independence. A ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague placed greater pressure on the PRC over its expansive territorial claims.
How will Beijing’s upcoming leadership transition affect these issues? No one knows. At least foreign leaders would have been aware of the critical differences between, say, former US president Bill Clinton and Trump, even if their exact policies might evolve once in office.
Of course, no nation has an obligation to create a political system to satisfy foreigners, but here the interests of the Chinese coincide with those of outsiders. And if Beijing aspires to global leadership, it is likely to find a warmer welcome if the rest of the world has a better sense as to who decides what.
Politics seem to inevitably frustrate, irrespective of country, but they are not always mysterious. Other dominant one-party states, such as Singapore, have been more open and accessible than China. Such an approach better accommodates an increasingly wealthy and sophisticated public.
The ongoing Chinese leadership change will be orchestrated under the old rules, which means no one outside of a chosen few know what is going on. However, the new leaders should think beyond the present.
China is a great nation with extraordinary potential. However, it faces equally significant challenges. It would fare better with a more transparent political system. China’s leaders are likely to find it ever harder to hide their most important decisions from public view.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to then-US president Ronald Reagan.
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