Beyond the politics of power
In its reporting on the 16th Central Committee's fifth plenum, which has just concluded, the overseas media has focused on elite politics - with much speculation about a power struggle and personnel changes. Yet, this overemphasis on the top leadership comes at the expense of a comprehensive analysis of mainland politics, economy and social changes at this very important stage of China's development.
Many fail to realise that China's leaders know very well the challenges they face as a collective entity. It is clear that if they mishandle many of the burning issues of the day, ranging from income inequality to environmental degradation, the survival of the regime as a whole will be at risk. Thus, there are fundamental unifying forces at work, pushing party elites to set aside their differences and work towards common goals.
That said, every new leadership takes certain steps to consolidate power, and the team headed by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao is no exception. But specific circumstances and factors differentiate this leadership from previous ones.
First, Mr Hu does not have Deng Xiaoping's personal clout, and has to rely more on the collective decision-making process. Other leaders are likely to put the emphasis on policy rather than group around an individual or a particular region. In that sense, the obsession with the factional affiliations of certain top party members may be heading in the wrong direction.
Second, there was no promotion of Mr Hu's future successors at the plenum, as had been widely anticipated. After only a few years in power, he may not have the kind of power base to reshuffle the leadership. Nor does he necessarily want to be seen to be pursuing such an agenda while trying to project a closer-to-the-people image.
Mr Hu and Mr Wen have other priorities: they have realised that unless they emphasise balanced development, more equality, harmony in society and measures to protect the environment, China's modernisation drive will not be sustained. If the Communist Party cannot continue to deliver economic growth and benefits, social stability will be threatened. Thus, the fifth plenum's priorities are not about personnel or the consolidation of power - although those are important to Mr Hu. Rather, what dominated the agenda were a new five-year economic development plan and other pressing economic, social and political issues.
Two major pillars of the new approach to solving China's development problems are gradually emerging. One is the construction of a 'harmonious society', which aims to improve equality, take care of those left behind, rebuild the failing social security network and calm social unrest. The other is the 'scientific concept of development', which stresses conservation and efficiency, reduces waste, promotes green indicators of gross domestic product and prevents further damage to the environment.
Both goals are, in fact, what the mainland really needs today. The irony is that Mr Hu and Mr Wen seem to have decided that they can implement these by maintaining tight control, at the expense of more political openness and civil liberty.
That is a fatal mistake. For without political reforms, broader participation, an open press and strengthened rule of law, a harmonious society and the scientific concept of development will remain largely political slogans. And the outside world will continue to be obsessed with the elite power struggle within Zhongnanhai.
Wenran Jiang is an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta, Canada