May 13, 2012, by Adrian Mateo

Why should China’s leadership succession matter to the rest of the world?

The formal process for the once-in-a-decade leadership succession in China is scheduled for the autumn. But the process to work out the succession is well underway. It came to the fore when the charismatic Party Secretary for Chongqing got into trouble when his former police chief sought asylum in the US consulate in February. He was suspended from the top party offices in April. Until his fall, Bo was widely expected to be elevated to one of the top nine positions in the autumn. The fact that it took two months for the Chinese leadership to agree on what to do with Bo shows that the difficulties they had in reaching any agreement that will impact upon the succession arrangement.

Why should this matter to the rest of the world?

There are three main reasons. To begin with China is now the second largest economy and the most dynamic of the major economies. Its capacity to sustain economic growth has implications not only for Chinese citizens but for the global economy.

This in turn is dependent on the capacity of the Chinese government to act effectively and decisively as the Chinese economy itself is dragged down by the global slowdown. But the intensity of the struggle for power within the top leadership means that there is little scope for this usually decisive authoritarian system to launch a massive stimulus package as it did in 2009. In the Chinese system, best described in terms of a consultative Leninist system, one does not get promoted to the top by taking risk. None who aims to get to top will take risk this year until one’s place in the top leadership structure, known as the Politburo Standing Committee, is already assured.

The need to avoid making mistakes as one jockeys for a top position also means those holding top offices and aspiring to get there will take on a nationalist approach. With the Communist Party now dependent on nationalism for its legitimacy, advocating a moderate foreign policy, which is what China needs, will be damaging to one’s prospect. Climbing on the nationalistic high horse is a safe course to take.

What this means in policy terms is that China is unlikely to be able to take bold initiatives to deal with a resurgence of the global financial crisis should it indeed materialize, as it did in 2009. Thus it is unrealistic to expect China will do much to help to deal with the Euro crisis this year.

It also explains why the Chinese government is taking such a strong and assertive position vis-à-vis the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal. China has a long standing dispute with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries over the sovereignty of islets in the South China Sea, of which the Scarborough Shoal is just one of them. Given the pre-eminent position China already enjoys in the region, its national interest and its policy of rising peacefully requires its government to take a conciliatory, rather than threatening, approach over the South China Sea disputes even when it holds a firm line on sovereignty. The politics of leadership succession has over-ridden the pragmatic and realist foreign policy calculations.

Hence, to understand how China will respond to challenges both globally and regionally this year, we need to look at and understand developments in China’s succession politics.

Steve Tsang (Director of the China Policy Institute and Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham)

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