We see who next leaders will be, not how they are chosen

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 July, 2011, 12:00am


In the official lexicon, managing China is often likened to navigating a ship, with Mao Zedong even known as the nation's Great Helmsman during the Cultural Revolution.

However, throughout most of the 20th century, as China was sailing into uncharted waters, its passengers never seemed to agree on where the ship was going.

Lei Yi, a historian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said people today could not imagine how hard change, any change, was to bring about in the last years of the Qing dynasty. 'For example, it took 12 long years for the government to decide it was going to use the telegraph,' he said.

A fierce scramble for control, featuring heated arguments about what to change and what to leave unchanged, led to shocking violence and a failed state, with the young emperor under house arrest, several young ministers beheaded in public, other reformists taking refuge overseas and the empire squandering its best opportunity for reform.

Now, exactly 100 years since the Qing dynasty's downfall, China is led by a self-proclaimed change-maker - the Communist Party. Anything useful from the wider world - ranging from luxury brands to modern weaponry - can now be put to immediate use on the mainland.

Power transitions during the past two decades of rapid economic progress have appeared more moderate and have featured fewer surprises.

Wang Yi, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Philosophy, says it shows evidence of a greater balance between the individual leader and the leadership institution. In contrast, he says, institutional constraints did not work well on leaders viewed as revolutionary heroes.

It was not until the early 1990s, in the latter years of Deng Xiaoping, that the Communist Party started putting in place a more systematic power transition. In 1989, after the Tiananmen crackdown, Jiang Zemin was rushed to Beijing by Deng to replace then general secretary, Zhao Ziyang , who fell out of favour for sympathising with student protesters.

The party's 14th national congress officially 'elected' Jiang as party general secretary and the chairman of its powerful Central Military Commission in 1992. A year later he was made president of the nation.

It was the start of a system in which the same person could lead the party as its general secretary, the nation as its president and the army as commander-in-chief for a maximum of two terms.

After Jiang finished his two terms, in 2002, he was succeeded as general secretary by Hu Jintao after the party's 16th national congress. Hu then became president in 2003.

The only wrinkle introduced by Jiang was his decision to hang on to the chairmanship of the central military commission for two more years, not passing it on to Hu until 2004. It is not known whether Hu will follow this practice.

With 69-year-old Hu close to the end of his second five-year term, most political observers in Beijing expect Xi Jinping , his 58-year-old heir apparent, to take over as general secretary next year and president in 2013.

The initiative is still clearly taken within a small circle, long before the appointment is rubber-stamped. Barring major accidents, things are now predictable.

It's a stark contrast to the murky and occasionally violent infighting that saw Mao root out his would-be successor Liu Shaoqi in 1966, Lin Biao's alleged coup plot against Mao in 1971, the coup that sent Mao's wife Jiang Qing and the other members of the Gang of Four to jail in 1976, and Deng's removal of three party leaders - Hua Guofeng in 1981, Hu Yaobang in 1987 and Zhao in 1989.

The late 1990s also saw, for the first time in China's history, a middle class emerging as a result of its economic progress, and the formation of a political middle ground.

Professor Li Weisen, from Shanghai's Fudan University, says the leadership now has to be more answerable to party members and citizens. Responsible party members have called for more reform and transparency, Li said, while all citizens would like to be more informed about key political developments.

Even though the present leadership seems to be faced with many social problems, along with competing demands from neo-Maoists and those calling for political reform, a major change in China's direction was unlikely next year, according to Professor Huang Weiping, director of Shenzhen University's Institute of Modern Chinese Politics.

At the same time, the power transition is now more complex, with some checks and balances - albeit with Chinese characteristics.

There are closed-door consultations among the elite, performance checks, and corruption and extramarital affairs are unacceptable. Special expertise and skills are valued, especially in macroeconomic and financial management. Local experience is also a plus.

And unlike the American or British systems, no one, not even the party's general secretary, has the privilege of appointing his or her own team. The one exception is that they can name a confidant as director of the party's central office.