Al Majalla04-26- 2011
Two years ago, on a visit to Mexico, a senior Chinese official responded gruffly to what he regarded as a hectoring American hegemony. In a not-so-veiled swipe at US policymakers, Xi Jinping slammed “foreigners who have stuffed their bellies and don’t have anything to do but point fingers...We aren’t making trouble for you. What else is there to say?” It was an indelicate, petulant reproach that even some Chinese bloggers suggested was beneath someone who was penciled in to become Beijing’s supreme leader.
In October, the by-then Vice President Xi was appointed Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, a key post that all but cemented the likelihood of him succeeding President Hu Jin-tao at next year’s Party Congress. He is expected to be accompanied in his elevation by Li Keqiang, who is groomed to succeed Jin Jiabao as premier. If all goes as planned, the two men will assume control of the country as it faces what may well be the most complex age in its modern history. China’s red-hot economy may collapse, relations between Beijing and Washington, though recovered slightly from a year or so of angry squabbling, are bound to be tested again most likely over such issues as China’s currency manipulation and its claims on Southeast Asian sea lanes. Yearnings for political reform, expressed only faintly today, may find a louder voice later on.
To make things even more uncertain, the magnitude of the challenges China will certainly face is directly disproportionate to the experience of the men, beginning with Xi and Li, who will confront them. Long gone are the disciples of Deng Xiaoping, the sage helmsman who steered China from madness to modernity in the 1990s. In the bland normalcy that has become China’s ruling culture, say Asian experts, there are precious few personalities of strength and daring who appear equal to the tasks ahead. Nor does there seem to be much in the way of a rapport between Xi and Li, who come from vastly different backgrounds. While Xi, a product of China’s revolutionary elites, is a believer in free-market orthodoxy, Li, who rose from obscurity to lead an important cadre of his own, is thought to be wary of capitalism’s destructive properties and sympathetic to its casualties. Despite China’s scripted political theatre, tension between the two men and the factions they lead is all but inevitable.
“It’s hard to find a Deng Xiaoping in this crowd,” says Charles Freeman, a China scholar at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “China is looking at an unprecedented array of domestic and international challenges, and here are people entering leadership positions with little experience. This has huge implications.”
It was Deng himself who laid down the rules according to which all party leaders must retire after they turn 68. These leadership transfers have been all but smooth. Indeed, should the 2012 Party Congress conclude without a civil war or national upheaval, it would mark only the second time in the history of Communist China that power was transferred peacefully.
Under Hu, who stressed compromise for the sake of party cohesion, Chinese politics have become consensus-driven as well as adversarial. Chinese commentators have likened his ruling circle to a “team of rivals,” a reference to US President Abraham Lincoln’s ambitious and sometimes fractious cabinet. It is defined by two ideological factions: the Communist Youth League, or tuanpai, and the Shanghai Gang. The former group, led by Hu and Wen, favors broadly balanced economic growth engineered by a strong central government on behalf of what used to be called the workers’ proletariat. For members of the tuanpai, high inflation and corruption are the enemies of stability because they directly impact the masses. Li, a Hu protégé, is very much identified with this group.
The Shanghai Gang—politicians mentored by Jiang Zemin, who preceded Hu as president—believe the best way to generate jobs and growth is to devolve power from the state to the provincial level, even if that means tolerating some levels of instability and corruption. It was under Jiang’s administration in the 1990s that China experienced some of its most vertiginous rates of growth alongside equal doses of graft. Xi is associated with the Shanghai Gang—Hank Paulson, the former US treasury secretary, has praised Xi for his adherence to free-market ideals—but not so closely so as to preclude him as Hu’s heir apparent. Indeed, Xi owes his success largely to his ability to avoid antagonizing rivals while cultivating allies.
Xi—a so-called “princeling,” as the offspring of China’s revolutionary generation are known—is best known as the son of one cultural icon and the husband of another. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a founder of the guerrilla movement in northern China and a Long March veteran who was purged twice, once in the 1940s and again two decades later, before he was rehabilitated under Deng. During the Cultural Revolution, Xi worked the land in rural Shaanxi—most urban youth at the time were obliged to show solidarity with the worker classes—and local farmers were so impressed with his rigor they named him village party chief. He received a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Tsinghua University and remained there to earn a PhD in law.
In 2000, Xi was made governor of Fujian province, where he presided over an economy flourishing with investment from neighboring Taiwan. Two years later, he was assigned the same job in the commercial powerhouse of Zhejiang province. He served as party boss there for five years, and residents speak fondly of him. They are amused that the buttoned-down Xi could be married to Peng Liyuan, a popular folk singer and head of the People’s Liberation Army’s song and dance troupe, but no one can remember a speech he gave or attributed to him a particular policy. Even Communist Party members are hard-pressed to come up with a signature Xi achievement. “Xi has nothing to do with the economy here,” says a municipal official in Wenzhou, Zhejiang’s thriving port city. “But his father was a famous revolutionary and that helped make him a star.”
Like the dark horse Xi, Li Keqiang spent time in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution and later studied law. Their shared experiences end there, however. Chinese databases seem to have been digitally air brushed of any mention of Li’s family, including his father’s name and occupation. As for Li himself, interviews with colleagues and contemporaries describe him as a passionate student who taught himself English by reciting phrases from a notebook. “He kept reading aloud even as he was on his way to the library or queuing in the cafeteria for food,” says He Qinhua, Li’s former classmate at Beijing University. Huang Nanping, an academic who as an undergraduate at Beijing University roomed down the hall from Li, remembers him as a committed, if sober-minded student activist. “He was a good student,” says Huang, “very active and free-thinking.” While at law school, he translated a US textbook on constitutional law into Chinese and later co-wrote a book on economic reforms.
After graduation, Li joined the Communist Youth League, a farm club for promising party members. He became a lieutenant to Hu, the league’s then chairman, who ran the organization as a political machine and source of patronage that serves him to this day. With Hu’s help, Li was given the top party job in Hunan province, where he survived a series of man-made disasters, including an AIDS epidemic and a deadly explosion at a government-run mine. In 2004, he was transferred to the heavily industrialized province of Liaoning, which is saddled with a concentration of large state-owned companies that were sold off more than a decade ago as part of a massive and hugely corrupt privatization drive. Divestment had created an army of jobless and often restive blue-collar workers.
Li was tasked with cleaning up the mess. Among his first acts as party boss was to expand a resettlement program for pink-slipped government employees with funds raised from both public and private sources. “Chinese people are easy to please,” says Wang Zhaohui, a political scientist at Beijing University. “If they see someone reaching out to help, they respond in kind. They know who’s good for them. Li showed them compassion.”
For all their different backgrounds and sensibilities, it could be that Xi and Li will end up complementing each another, with Xi appealing to free market apostles at home and abroad and Li expressing China’s traditional empathy with the developing world while driving a wedge through the industrialized one. Touring Europe in January, Li reassured his diplomatic counterparts that Beijing would dutifully invest in the continent’s sovereign debt, signaling ever so subtly that its appetite for US treasuries had its limits while distracting a stricken eurozone from a US-led campaign to pressure China into devaluing its currency. (Li even found time to pen an opinion column headlined “The world should not fear a growing China,” for the Financial Times.)
Pitting foreigners against each other may prove to be the easiest of tasks for China’s new leadership. Since opening to the West, China has been spared the kind of existential threats that have frequently driven it into disarray. Relations with its neighbors are peaceful, if at times uneasy, and its economy has defied warnings of a denouement. Sooner or later, however, gravity will impose itself on the mightiest economic expansion in history and China will face a genuine crisis. The people will seek reassurance from a leader—an animated, corporeal, credible personality—rather than a committee of bland apparatchiks. If the leader fails, the team of rivals becomes a thicket of punji sticks. A vacuum is created and tumult ensues, beckoning a challenge from an insurrectionist cadre or perhaps even the military.
Managing the world’s most populous nation and dynamic economy was tough enough for hard-boiled men like Deng and his contemporaries, let alone for greenhorns like Xi and Li, and the job will only get more complex as it matures. Economically, China will become more vulnerable to viral shocks as its financial systems integrate and digitize while demands for political reform to suit the needs of a more agile, consumer-driven economy will amplify. Its relentless hunger for raw materials makes some kind of confrontation with the US likely, given Washington insistence on control of “the global commons,” Pentagon-speak for every strategic land bridge, waterway and air corridor on Earth. Mindful of the challenges ahead, Xi and Li would do well to consider the adage of another American statesman, Benjamin Franklin, who once urged his fellow revolutionaries to “hang together, lest we all hang separately.”