Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders in official portrait, Beijing, Nov. 15, 2012. Ju Peng/Xinhua Press/Corbis
Rule of the Princelings
February 10, 2013
much-anticipated 18th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in November
unfolded according to that classic rhythm in the study of Chinese elite politics:
predictability giving way to ambiguity, and optimism alternating with cynicism.
Prior to the announcement of the composition of the new guard, led by new party
General Secretary Xi Jinping, many analysts both in China and abroad had believed
that the new leadership would continue to maintain the roughly equal balance of
power that existed between the Jiang Zemin camp and the Hu Jintao camp. Yet in the
end, the results were a huge surprise: the Jiang camp won a landslide victory by
obtaining six out of the seven seats on the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) while
only one leader in the Hu camp—Li Keqiang, now designated to become premier
in March—was able to keep a seat on this supreme decision-making body.
In the wake of the recent Bo Xilai scandal and the resulting crisis of CPC rule,
many had anticipated that party leaders would adopt certain election mechanisms—what
the Chinese authorities call “intra-party democracy”—to restore
the party’s much-damaged legitimacy and to generate a sense that the new top
leaders do indeed have an election-based new mandate to rule. For example, some
analysts had anticipated that the CPC Central Committee might use competitive (though
limited) multiple-candidate elections to select members of its leadership bodies,
such as the twenty-five-member politburo or even the PSC. Such high-level elections,
however, did not take place. The selection of elites at this congress continued
to be done the old fashioned way—through the “black box” of manipulation,
deal-cutting, and trade-offs that occur behind the scenes among a handful of politicians
(e.g., outgoing PSC members and retired heavyweight figures—most noticeably
the 86-year old Jiang).
What is even more troubling is the fact that four out of the seven PSC members are
princelings—leaders who come from families of either veteran revolutionaries
or high-ranking officials. It has been widely noted that large numbers of prominent
party leaders and families have used their political power to convert state assets
into their own private wealth. The unprecedentedly strong presence of princelings
in the new PSC is likely to reinforce public resentment of how power and wealth
continue to converge in China.
Chinese politics thus seem to be entering a new era characterized by the concentration
of princeling power at the top. This gives rise to important questions regarding
the nature and implications of the new leadership. What caused the dramatic defeat
of the Hu camp in this political succession? Does the six-to-one split of the PSC
mean a shift from factional power-sharing to a new “winner takes all”
mode of Chinese elite politics? Will the factional imbalance at the top seriously
undermine leadership unity and elite cohesion, thus potentially threatening the
sociopolitical stability of the country at large? What are the main characteristics
of this new princeling elite? What should we expect in terms of economic policies,
political reforms, and foreign relations under the Xi Jinping administration? And
can the identities of newly promoted leaders help us understand where China is headed?
Because of the key role China plays in the global economy and in regional security,
the international community needs to grasp these new tensions and dynamics in the
Chinese leadership now emerging at a time when the Middle Kingdom is facing many
daunting challenges. How the princelings govern China, especially how state-society
relations unfold, will undoubtedly have profound ramifications far beyond China’s
Though China is a
one-party state in which the CPC monopolizes power, the party leadership is not
a monolithic group. CPC leaders do not all share the same ideology, political association,
socioeconomic background, or policy preferences. Two main political factions or
coalitions within the CPC leadership have been competing for power, influence, and
control over policy initiatives since the late 1990s.
This bifurcation has created within China’s one-party polity something approximating
a mechanism of checks and balances in the decision-making process. This mechanism
is, of course, not the kind of institutionalized system of checks and balances that
operates between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches in a democratic
system. But this new structure—sometimes referred to in China as “one
party, two coalitions”—does represent a major departure from the “all-powerful
strongman” model that was characteristic of politics in the Mao Zedong and
Deng Xiaoping eras.
One of the two intra-party groups in China is the “elitist coalition,”
which emerged in the Jiang Zemin era and used to be headed by Jiang and is currently
led by Xi Jinping. The other is the “populist coalition,” which was
led by President Hu Jintao prior to the 18th Party Congress and is now headed by
his protégé Li Keqiang.
These two coalitions represent different socioeconomic and geographical constituencies.
Most of the top leaders in the elitist coalition, for instance, are princelings.
Many of these princelings began their careers in the economically well-developed
coastal cities. The elitist coalition usually represents the interests of China’s
entrepreneurs and emerging middle class. Most leading figures in the populist coalition,
by contrast, come from less-privileged families. They also tend to have accumulated
much of their leadership experience in the less-developed inland provinces. Many
advanced in politics by way of the Chinese Communist Youth League and have therefore
garnered the label tuanpai, literally meaning
“league faction.” These populists often voice the concerns of vulnerable
social groups, such as farmers, migrant workers, and the urban poor.
clarifications about China’s intra-party factionalism are in order. Factional
politics and political coalitions in present-day China, although not really
opaque to the public, still lack transparency. With a few noticeable
exceptions—such as former party chief of Chongqing Bo Xilai and party chief of
Guangdong Wang Yang, both of whom conducted distinct self-promotion campaigns a
couple of years prior to the 18th Party Congress—a majority of political
leaders in China usually take a low-profile approach, lobbying for promotion in
a non-public manner. Unlike the decades of Liberal Democratic Party hegemony in
Japan (1955–94), for instance, factional politics within the CPC have not yet
been legitimated by the party constitution. A few leaders may have dual
identities as both princeling and tuanpai,
although one can usually identify their factional affiliations by the channel
through which they are promoted and who their patrons are.
of these two competing factions differ in expertise, credentials, and
experience. Yet they understand the need to compromise in order to
coexist—especially in times of crisis. By and large, these two competing camps
have maintained a roughly equal factional balance of power over the past
decade. The previous nine-member PSC, for example, was characterized by a
five-to-four split, with five seats held by the elitist coalition and four by
the populist coalition.
The Hu Camp’s
This factional balance
of power now appears to be broken. There were three eligible candidates who served
on the previous politburo and met the age requirement but failed to be elevated
to the PSC at the 18th Party Congress—all were tuanpai
leaders. These include the only woman candidate, State Councilor Liu Yandong, and
two rising stars, the aforementioned Wang Yang, and former head of the CPC Organization
Department Li Yuanchao. All three, especially Wang and Li, are regarded as staunch
advocates of political reform.
The Chinese public will likely understand why Wang was not elevated: many conservative
leaders saw him as a threat. Wang’s main political rival was Bo Xilai, and
the two tended to balance each other in terms of power, influence, and policy agenda.
Now that Bo is out of the political game, the conservatives do not want Wang to
remain in it. That Li Yuanchao was not elevated, however, was surprising. In charge
of personnel promotion within the CPC over the past five years, Li carried arguably
the strongest weight in selecting delegates to the 18th Party Congress. An instrumental
voice for rule of law, governmental accountability, and intra-party democracy, Li
has many supporters, especially among liberal intellectuals. He has also played
a crucial role in recruiting foreign-educated returnees and promoting college graduates
who work as village cadres.
Furthermore, at the congress Hu Jintao ceded his military position instead of following
the practice of his predecessor Jiang Zemin, who retained the chairmanship of the
powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) for two years after resigning from the
formal party leadership. Now the number of princelings in this supreme military
leadership body is unprecedentedly high. Four of the eleven members of the CMC are
princelings, doubling the representation of princelings since the formation of the
previous CMC five years ago.
This outcome is particularly startling when one considers the fact that Hu Jintao
and his ally Wen Jiabao decisively expelled Bo, a notoriously ambitious princeling,
from the party in 2012. This occurred in the wake of the dramatic incident in which
former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun defected to the United States Consulate
in Chengdu, and the subsequent revelation of the murder of British businessman Neil
Heywood, carried out by Bo Xilai’s wife. By levying a long list of criminal
charges against Bo (presently awaiting trial)—including obstruction of justice,
abuse of power, violation of party rules, bribery, and other crimes—Hu and
Wen seemed to have won a landmark political battle.
The Bo Xilai scandal was a huge blow for the princeling faction. How is it possible
that leadership infighting has taken yet another dramatic twist since his downfall?
What has caused this profound change in the power equation? Though full answers
to these politically sensitive issues will perhaps take time to emerge, clues have
The first relates to the now well-known Ferrari crash that occurred in Beijing on
March 18, 2012, three days after the Chinese authorities fired Bo Xilai as Chongqing
party chief. The crash immediately killed the driver, who was the son of Ling Jihua,
the then director of the CPC General Office and Hu Jintao’s chief of staff.
It also critically injured two young female passengers, one of whom died mysteriously
at the hospital months later. It was believed that Ling not only managed to hide
his son’s death from the leadership but also asked the CEO of the China National
Petroleum Corporation to pay a large sum of money to the families of the two women
in exchange for their silence, and even ordered the Central Guard Bureau, China’s
secret service corps that manages the top leaders’ security, to handle—and
cover up—the incident.
There have been two main rumors explaining how Ling Jihua sought to cover up the
crash. One is that Ling helped fabricate information about the incident, which spread
by social media, stating that the dead driver was a son of then PSC member Jia Qinglin.
Upon hearing such rumors, an outraged Jia brought his grievance to the top leadership,
including former party chief Jiang Zemin. The other rumor is that Ling attempted
to make a deal with a prominent princeling, then PSC member and police tsar Zhou
Yongkang, who was involved in the Bo Xilai scandal. The deal was simple: Zhou would
help Ling cover up the car crash incident, and in return Ling would refrain from
investigating Zhou’s involvement in the Bo case.
Regardless of which rumor holds the most truth, the Ling scandal was the second
earthquake to rock Chinese elite politics last year, second in magnitude only to
the Bo crisis. Ling has long served as Hu’s closest confidant and “political
fixer.” This episode has severely damaged the authority and credibility that
Hu Jintao wields in the leadership. The PSC’s decision in July to remove Ling
from his post as director of the powerful General Office and to instead appoint
him to a less important post was seen by many as a prelude that the Hu camp would
be far less competitive in the power jockeying of the fall congress than had been
The second incident was the accusation that Premier Wen Jiabao’s family was
corrupt. This charge was widely circulated both by Chinese social media and in the
foreign press, notably by the sensational story published by the New York Times
in October charging that Wen’s relatives have controlled assets worth $2.7
billion. Whether or not Wen and his immediate family have been involved in illegal
business activities is not clear. What is also not clear is whether this accusation
against Wen was initiated by his political rivals.
The ideological differences between Wen on one end of the factional spread and politically
conservative leaders in the Jiang camp on the other, however, are widely known to
the Chinese public. Over the past several years, Wen has consistently emphasized
the universal value of democracy, the political bottlenecks that undermine Chinese
economic development, and the necessity for fundamental political transformation
in the country. In contrast, Wu Bangguo, the second-highest ranking leader in the
previous PSC and a heavyweight leader in the Jiang camp, rejected Wen’s call
for democratic reform by claiming that the Wen’s appeals (for elections, constitutionalism,
and media supervision) would lead the country into an uncharted sea of drastic political
change or even chaos, and thus should be resisted at all cost.
The timing of the latest wave of criticism against Wen that circulated in both the
Chinese social media and overseas mainstream news outlets has effectively undermined
the premier’s reputation and sabotaged his well-known political reform agenda.
Wen, potentially the strongest supporter of like-minded political reformers in the
fifth generation (such as Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao), was thus forced to fall largely
silent during the most crucial period of the leadership succession.
Third, even without these two incidents, the Hu-Wen administration has confronted
an increasingly profound sense of public disappointment and criticism as the Hu
era wound to a close. Hu has been criticized by the political and economic elites
in the country, including the middle class, for his “inaction” (wuwei),
a frequently used term in both Chinese blogs and daily conversations in the country.
Some critics also portrayed Wen Jiabao as an ineffective premier who is famous for
crying in public but not for getting things done. Some prominent Chinese public
intellectuals have openly called the two five-year terms of the Hu leadership “the
For many critics, Hu’s rhetoric of a “harmonious society” (a buzzword
in the Hu era for the principal policy objectives of reducing social tensions and
economic disparity) resonates poorly (and ironically) given that the country’s
Gini Coefficient, the standard measurement of the income gap, has worsened. Since
2002 it has risen to 0.48 in 2009 and to 0.61 in 2010, according to two recent studies
conducted by the World Bank and China’s Southwestern University of Finance
and Economics respectively, far exceeding the 0.44 figure that scholars say indicates
the potential for social destabilization. Furthermore, the country’s spending
on internal public security has skyrocketed in recent years, for the first time
overtaking spending on national defense in 2010 to the tune of $84 billion.
On the foreign policy front, critics have argued that Hu’s “good neighborhood
policy” has largely failed because China seems to have generated serious tension
or distrust with virtually all of its neighboring countries, including a number
of flash points along China’s borders and seas. China confronts an increasingly
complicated and challenging international environment yet, despite its growing power
and influence on the world stage, has few friends.
Disillusionment over Hu’s leadership is arguably most salient among the vast
number of the country’s middle class. Members of this stratum often complain
that they (rather than the upper class) shoulder most of the burden incurred by
Hu’s harmonious society policies that are targeted at helping vulnerable socio-economic
groups. Another thing angering the middle class is the high unemployment rate among
college graduates, who often come from middle class families: nearly two million
each year fail to find work. The admission rate for civil service exams has fallen
remarkably low, reaching just 1.9 percent this year, in sharp contrast to ten years
ago when government employees were leaving to “jump into the sea of the private
business sector” (xiahai). This change reflects the shrinking of
the private sector in recent years.
However, it is too early to hand down a definitive verdict regarding the legacy
of the Hu era. For instance, many of the issues that emerged or were not resolved
during Hu’s administration may have structural or cyclical origins and thus
were beyond his control. The above criticisms also reflect only the views of certain
groups such as opinion leaders and the middle class. Hu and Wen may remain popular
among the vast number of peasants and migrant workers; and Wen may still have strong
support from liberal intellectuals in the country. Many problems might also be attributable
to policy deadlock—and political gridlock—caused by the factional jockeying
as played out in the collective leadership. It is possible that the situation could
have been even worse without Hu and Wen’s efforts to constrain the powerful
elitist coalition. Nevertheless, the fact that Hu has been in charge during the
past decade has made him the natural target for blame.
More importantly, the argument that factional deadlock was at the root of the Hu-Wen
administration’s ineffectiveness has now apparently played into the hands
of Jiang’s camp. If a more balanced factional composition at the PSC has often
led to policy deadlock, why shouldn’t the 18th Party Congress have a leadership
lineup where power is concentrated in the hands of the new top leader Xi Jinping
and his team? This is another important factor behind the six-to-one split of the
This does not mean, however, that the winner now takes all in Chinese elite politics.
Hu’s protégés are still well represented in other important
leadership bodies. Although the Jiang camp has dominated the new PSC, the balance
between the two camps in the 25-member politburo, the Secretariat (the organization
that handles daily administrative affairs), and the CMC have largely remained intact.
In fact, many tuanpai leaders have made it into the new 376-member Central
Committee. This writer’s research indicates that tuanpai leaders
now occupy ninety-six seats in the new Central Committee constituting 25.5 percent
of this very crucial decision-making body, a steep uptick when compared with the
tuanpai’s eighty-six seats in the previous 371-member Central
Committee (23.2 percent).
Prominent tuanpai leaders such as the aforementioned Li Yuanchao and Wang
Yang will still be eligible in terms of age for the next PSC in five years. If the
“one party, two coalitions” dynamics is a new experiment in Chinese
elite politics, the CPC can also experiment with a new mechanism of “factional
rotation” (paixi lunhuan). This may explain why the Hu camp quietly
acquiesced to its political Waterloo in the latest leadership succession.
Xi Jinping has had
an auspicious beginning as China’s new leader. He enjoys a majority in the
PSC and is the top leader in the wake of a complete succession in both the party
and military leadership. Xi thus has obtained the power and authority to initiate
his new policy agenda. His predecessor’s unpopularity among opinion leaders
and the middle class has also enhanced Xi’s public support—giving a
sense that he has a new mandate. In the wake of the recent Bo Xilai and Ling Jihua
scandals, all party elite regardless of factional affiliation will unite, at least
for the time being, under Xi’s leadership in order to maintain CPC rule.
Most importantly, the new leadership
seems to be very capable on the economic front and it has strong policy preferences
for accelerating market reforms (see chart). Four princeling leaders on the PSC—Xi
Jinping, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, and Wang Qishan—all have decades of
experience and high levels of competence in economic and financial affairs. Some
Chinese analysts argue that due to their princeling background, these leaders have
more political capital and resources than did their predecessors Hu Jintao and Wen
Jiabao (who came from humble family backgrounds) in terms of running the Chinese
economy and coordinating various governmental agencies.
Policy Priorities and Preferences of China’s Top Seven Leaders (New PSC Members)
Confirmed or Designated Leadership
Policy Priorities and Preferences
Secretary General, Chairman of CMC, PRC President
of the private sector, market liberalization in foreign investment, and Shanghai’s
role as financial and shipping center
of the State Council
of affordable housing, basic health care and social welfare programs, and promotion
of clean energy
of the National People’s Congress
of state-owned enterprises, promotion of “China’s Go Global Strategy,”
and indigenous innovation
of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference
of the private sector and urban development, high-rate of GDP growth, and legal
development, especially intellectual property rights issues
Executive Secretary of the Secretariat, President of the Central Party School
effective control over media and the Internet, and promotion of China’s soft
of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection
of China’s financial system, high-rate GDP growth, and tax-revenue reforms
in central-local governments
Vice Premier of the State Council
liberalization in foreign investment, economic efficiency, and a high-rate of GDP
long been known for his market-friendly approach to economic development for
domestic and foreign businesses alike. Xi’s leadership experience in running
Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, three economically advanced regions in the
country, has prepared him well for pursuing policies to promote the development
of the private sector, foreign investment and trade, and the liberalization of
China’s financial system—all of which have experienced serious setbacks in
recent years under the previous administration. Another good example of
effective leadership is Wang Qishan, the newly appointed anti-corruption tsar.
Over the past few years Wang has served as a principal convener for China in
the Sino-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Wang, whose nickname is “the
chief of the fire brigade,” is arguably the most competent policy maker in
economic and financial affairs in the Chinese leadership. The Chinese public
regards Wang as a leader who is capable and trustworthy during times of
emergency or crisis, whether it be China’s response to the 1997 Asian financial
crisis, the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic, or China’s
ongoing rampant official corruption. Based on his previous leadership
experiences and policy initiatives, Wang will most likely promote the
development of foreign investment and trade, the liberalization of China’s
financial system, and tax-revenue reforms, which are all crucial for the
maintenance of smooth central-local economic relations.
of (or because of) their weaknesses and liabilities in terms of fundamental
political reforms, the new leaders will likely opt for bolder and more
aggressive economic reforms to lift public confidence. The upcoming economic
reforms will probably prioritize three sets of policies. First, the new leaders
will work hard to please the middle class. Such policies would include tax
cuts, more loans to private small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and more
preferential policies to the services sector. A richer and larger middle class
in China would also help to stimulate domestic consumption, the next driver for
China’s economic growth. Second, the new leaders will promote financial
liberalization by inviting more foreign competition to the Chinese banking sector.
Finally, they will accelerate urbanization, especially in second- and
third-tier cities, by reforming policies involving both rural land reform and
the urban household registration system (hukou).
Jinping’s first domestic trip after becoming the party general secretary was to
Shenzhen, the point of origin for Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” policy
in the late 1970s. China’s stock market, after two years of sluggishness,
rebounded very strongly after Xi’s symbolic trip. The central question,
however, is whether or not Xi and the princeling-dominated PSC can achieve
sustainable economic development without pursuing systemic political reform.
Can China really adopt an innovation-driven economy while the country’s
political system remains as it is?
The ascent of the
princelings has occurred at a time when public criticism of rampant official corruption
is unprecedentedly high. Some Chinese public intellectuals use the term “statist
crony-capitalism” (quangui zibenzhuyi) to refer to the growing phenomenon
in which senior leaders and their families control some state-monopolized industries
or major state-owned enterprises (SOEs) for their own profit. This cronyism is especially
noticeable in the major business domains such as railways, petroleum, utilities,
banking, and telecommunications.
The remarkable growth of some SOEs such as China Mobile, for example, has primarily
been attributed to the company’s monopoly on telecommunications in the Chinese
domestic market. This has two troubling consequences. First, there is no incentive
for these flagship companies to pursue technological innovation. While China’s
large SOEs have dramatically increased their profitability and standing among the
Global Fortune 500 over the past decade, no single Chinese brand has truly distinguished
itself in the global market. Second, the real beneficiaries of China’s economic
rise on the world stage are not the Chinese people, but merely a small number of
corrupt officials and their families.
The state-of-the-art high-speed train system is often seen as the symbol of China’s
economic take-off, but the country’s railway industry has been running a budget
deficit. China’s official media recently reported that a bureau-level official
in China’s Ministry of Railways held Swiss and American bank accounts with
assets of $2.8 billion. What is even more astonishing has been the scandal involving
the former minister of railways, Liu Zhijun. Liu’s nickname—“Mr.
Four Percent”—derived from his reputation for demanding a personal cut
of every business deal in the industry. According to the Singapore media, Liu intended
to spend two billion yuan ($320 million) to “purchase” the post of vice
premiership, and even a seat in the 2012 politburo, before he was arrested on corruption
charges in February 2011. Almost two years after the arrests of the bureau-level
official and the minister, the two cases have not yet been tried.
According to an internal report by the CPC Organization Department, of the 8,370
senior executives in China’s 120 flagship state-owned companies, 6,370 (76
percent) have immediate family members who live overseas or hold foreign passports.
It is also widely noted that a significant number of children and siblings of senior
CPC leaders live, work, and study in Western countries. The Chinese public has often
linked this trend to the large-scale outflow of capital in recent years. According
to a 2012 report released by Washington-based Global Financial Integrity, cumulative
illicit financial flows from China (primarily by corrupt officials) totaled a massive
$3.8 trillion from 2000 to 2011.
Since a top priority of the CPC leadership is the maintenance of its own rule, it
is no surprise that the police have become more powerful, not only in terms of their
input into socioeconomic policies but also in terms of budget allocation. For example,
the total amount of money used for “maintaining social stability” in
2009 was 514 billion yuan—almost identical to China’s total national
defense budget (532 billion yuan) that year. The Chinese government budget for national
defense in 2012 was 670.3 billion yuan, while the budget for the police and other
public security expenditures was 701.8 billion yuan (an 11.5 percent increase).
Two factors have contributed to the growing power of the police force. First, the
Arab Spring led CPC leaders to fear that they could face an outcome similar to that,
for example, of the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt. Second, business elites—especially
those who work in state-monopolized industries—have often bribed government
officials including police officers and formed a “wicked coalition.”
This coalition constantly talks about the need for stability in the country but
in fact is more concerned about maintaining its own interests.
The oligopoly of SOEs not only jeopardizes the commercial interests of foreign companies
but also hurts the country’s own private enterprises, thus detracting from
the long-term potential of China’s market economy. A study conducted by Chinese
scholars shows that the total profits made by China’s 500 largest private
companies in 2009 were less than the total revenues of two SOE companies, China
Mobile and Sinopec. Ironically, the private sector’s net return on investment
was 8.18 percent, compared to the 3.05 percent return of SOEs in the country in
All this not only shows that China’s future economic development will increasingly
depend on much-needed political reforms, but also reveals the enormous challenge
for the new leadership in its pronounced commitment to crack down on official corruption.
This commitment is as essential as it is dangerous, because the sociopolitical demands
unleashed will be overwhelming. Ultimately, it is a test of Xi Jinping and Wang
Qishan’s anti-corruption campaign. Is it driven merely by factional interest
in getting rid of political rivals? Will it primarily target “small potatoes”?
Will it simply be adopted as a temporary tactic instead of pursuing the institution
building necessary to effectively control corruption?
It is interesting to note that within a week after Xi and Wang made their speeches
calling for a tougher crackdown on official corruption, journalists in the commercial
media and netizens using social media leveled accusations against three senior leaders—one
new politburo member and two ministers—of nepotism in elite recruitment, fake
academic credentials, womanizing, and corruption. Social media has become so influential
that Chinese authorities often shut down domestic micro-blogging services.
China’s various new economic and sociopolitical forces are also becoming increasingly
protective of their interests. For example, a manual labor shortage in some coastal
cities in recent years has reflected the growing political consciousness of the
younger generation of migrant workers to protect their own rights. Migrants, effectively
second class citizens in China, are resentful over all manner of discriminative
policies. They have moved from one job to the next in order to receive a decent
salary. Due at least partly to their repeated demands, China has recently witnessed
a dramatic increase in wages.
More broadly, as the American political scientist Minxin Pei has observed, the Chinese
citizenry now routinely challenges the party on a wide range of public policy issues,
including environmental protection, public healthcare, food safety, social welfare,
social justice, rural land reforms, urban development, religious rights, and ethnic
tension. Official statistics report that there are on average 500-plus mass protest
incidents each day.
The lack of a legal channel for public participation combined with tight police
control has created a vicious circle in which the more fiercely the police suppress
social protests, the more violent and widespread the protests become. There is a
similar vicious circle in the realm of the media: the more that sensational rumors
in social media are suppressed by the government, the more influential they become.
Meanwhile, growing popular nationalistic sentiment, particularly xenophobic views
against the Japanese government (and perhaps the United States government as well)
over the territorial disputes on the East China Sea, also constitutes a major political
challenge for the Xi administration. Contemporary Chinese history shows that the
practice of trying to distract the public from domestic problems by playing up foreign
problems has often ended with regime change. Xenophobic
public sentiments can quickly transform into an anti-government uprising. Yet CPC
leaders may be cornered into taking a confrontational approach to foreign policy
due to the nationalistic appeal from both the Chinese military and left-wing opinion
All of these sociopolitical challenges are reinforcing the necessity and urgency
for profound democratic political reforms. A democratic system, of course, can neither
solve social tensions nor the problem of extreme nationalism. Yet, it does provide
a much better chance to channel social conflicts through the legal process and provide
open debate in search of a more rational foreign policy.
The sense of urgency was bluntly explained on the eve of the 18th Party Congress
by Zhang Lifan, a well-known public intellectual in Beijing: “If the next
generation of leaders does not pursue political reforms in their first term, there
is no point in doing so in their second term.” In his words, “China
should witness either reforms in the first five years, or the end of the CPC in
ten years.” Interestingly enough, in speeches given after becoming party general
secretary, Xi Jinping also talked about the possible collapse of the CPC if the
leadership failed to seize the opportunity to reform and revitalize the party.
Some Chinese liberal intellectuals explicitly regarded Xi as mainland China’s
Chiang Ching-kuo. Also a princeling (the son of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek),
Chiang Ching-kuo surprised many in the mid-1980s with his bold and historical move
to lift the ban on opposition parties and media censorship in Taiwan, initiating
the island’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy.
The next few years will likely tell whether Xi will be a transformative leader,
or merely a transitional leader.
Cheng Li is director of
research and a senior fellow at the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings
Institution in Washington, DC. Li is also director of the National Committee on
U.S.-China Relations. He is the author of several books, most recently,
The Road to Zhongnanhai: High-Level Leadership Groups on the Eve of the 18th Party
Congress (in Chinese), and The Political Mapping of China’s
Tobacco Industry and Anti-Smoking Campaign.