November 15, 2012, by China Policy Institute

Question Marks and Shoes to Fall for China’s Leadership Transition

by Don Keyser.

We normally take it to be axiomatic that a new leadership “selected by” a Chinese Communist Party congress does not set a clearly defined direction for the future so much as it affirms — and provides visible evidence of- the temporary resolution of complex deal-making behind the curtain.

While struggle at the highest level is typically muted, indeed often invisible, in the run-up to the partycongress, intimations of personal, factional and institutional lines of cleavage usually manifest themselves all too quickly in the wake of the predictably “victorious” closing of the “fully successful” gathering. In Hegelian terms – thesis, antithesis, synthesis– selection of a new leadership lineup attests to power realities in the current slice of time but will also carry the seeds of coming tensions and conflicts.

China scholar Andy Nathan offered almost 40 years ago a succinct summation of this phenomenon in a China Quarterly article (“A Factionalism Model of CCP Politics,” CQ 53, Jan 1973): “No faction will be able to achieve overwhelmingly superior power … one faction may for the moment enjoy somewhat greater power than rival factions, but this power will not be so great that the victorious faction is capable of expunging its rival and assuring permanent dominance.”

It has been a while since Nathan wrote that. Politics play out today on a markedly different canvas: internecine factional strife is less “ideological” and more along functional/regional/institutional lines; “harmony” – especially since June 4, 1989 — is held aloft as the highest intra-party principle; and murky power alliances are often best understood in terms of explicit or tacit arrangements involving access to assured financial rewards.

But, precisely because the underlying system in 2012 remains one lacking in transparency, without firmly established checks and balances, and still subject to decisive top-down pressures and manipulation (even or especially by those no longer holding formal position), Nathan’s analysis remains relevant today.

Xi Jinping for now emerges as the big “winner” from the conclave: Hu Jintao yielded each of his positions, including the military commission chairmanship, and ostensibly retires in name and in fact. Even so, the new leadership is shadowed by question marks, and by shoes that either failed to drop or that fell in odd places. For example:

  • Wang Qishan as CDIC chair- was one of the few “surprises” as measured against the flood of well-informed “insider” prognostications found in Hong Kong media and a host of Chinese-language websites. One line of early speculation is that Wang drew the thankless job of inspecting and imposing discipline upon the senior party hierarchy because, lacking children, he could be trusted to take seriously his mandate to probe wherever the trail might lead.That seems improbable. A more plausible explanation, perhaps, is that Wang, as a card-carrying member of the “princeling” camp, as son-in-law of the late Yao Yilin, could be trusted to “understand” the special circumstances of Chinese leaders and their extended families.Alternatively, one could speculate that Wang drew this assignment because the more plausible designee, Zhang Dejiang, also a “princeling” and trouble-shooter extraordinaire who moved in to clean house in Chongqing in the wake of the Bo Xilai affair, was not fully trusted by his peers to hold the sensitive CDIC portfolio.
  • Zhang Dejiang as putative executive vice premier– is also surprising if that pans out. Wang Qishan had been thought the odds-on choice to assume that portfolio, and indeed had been thought a possible last-minute selection to replace Li Keqiang as premier.Did Wang Qishan suffer from the same sin of perceived hubris/excessive ambition/unseemly “campaigning” that not only played into Bo Xilai’s fall from grace but also factored into the failure to promote Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao to the Politburo Standing Committee? Was Wang Qishan deemed too inclined to promote institutional reform – against the new consensus – whereas the more “conservative” Zhang Dejiang, educated at Kim Il-sung University, considered safer? Was pushing Wang Qishan off to the side the pound of flesh extracted by the outgoing Hu Jintao in order to protect his own protégé Li Keqiang from marginalization in the new lineup?
  • Dai Bingguo’s replacement as Politburo Member responsible for foreign affairs– seems to be Wang Huning, a close associate of Hu Jintao but a person without hands-on experience in foreign affairs. In any case, the persons most frequently named as contenders to assume that position as State Councilor and Politburo member failed to get the Politburo slot: Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, CCP/CC International Department Director Wang Jiarui, Taiwan Affairs Office head Wang Yi, Hong Kong and Macau Affairs head Wang Guangya, or even Foreign Ministry Executive Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun.

There is surely a tale to be told, but one that may not begin to emerge until the new State Councilor replacing Dai is identified. From the U.S. perspective, both Chinese heads of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue have moved on – Wang Qishan to the P/SC and Dai Bingguo to presumed retirement next March – with succession to the very unclear.

Stay tuned, therefore.

Don Keyser is a non-resident Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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