ChinaWatch: China’s 18th Party Congress
You’d be easily forgiven for thinking there were just two political events worth following at the moment; the Gillard Abbott contest here at home, and the billion dollar battle between Obama and Romney abroad.
Arguably though, there’s a third political event that’s received far fewer column inches, yet is just as relevant to us and will remain so, long after the other two have ended.
In early November, just a few days after the US has voted, China will host its 18th Party Congress.
Under a unique mix of stoicism and fanfare, the Chinese Communist Party will unveil a fifth generation of Chinese leadership. Nine, maybe just seven, blokes will take the stage, all around 60-something, and all sporting western suits, boot polish-black hair and Mona Lisa smiles. After some set remarks, they’ll be whisked away.
It’ll probably be one of the few times we’ll ever see them together in the one spot, yet this group of men – the Politburo Standing Committee – will need to work closely to tackle the enormous challenges facing China.
Challenges like addressing the growing demands of 1.3 billion people (about half of whom still live outside of China’s 660 cities), managing the sensitivities surrounding Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang, responding to environmental impacts and climate change, and all while modernising the world’s soon-to-be largest economy.
I reckon Andrew Charlton summed up this challenge nicely in his 2011 Monthly article when he likened China’s economic transformation to dismantling a VW Beetle and reassembling it as a Toyota Prius, all while keeping your foot on the accelerator.
Xi Jinping will most likely lead the effort, taking over from Hu Jintao as the Party’s General Secretary and as the Country’s President. He’s likely to pick up a third gong - Chairman of the Central Military Committee - at some point in the future and thus become Commander-in-chief of the world’s largest military. That’s an impressive job description.
What do we know about Xi, and what will China under Xi be like? Past leaders have all had identifying characteristics. Mao was the revolutionary, Deng a reformer. Jiang was charismatic, while Hu was a technocrat. Xi is a bit more of an unknown entity.
He has offered no lengthy tome into his experiences or values like Obama, nor does he propose any future vision or master plan like Rudd’s Monthly essays or Abbott’s “Battlelines”. Even the Wikileaks US diplomatic cables highlighted how little the US Government really knows about the man and his intentions.
We do know a few things, though.
Firstly, Xi is a princeling. As a son of the late high-ranking Party member Xi Zhongxun, Xi is part of the new generation of Party members who are from similar rarefied stock. And being a princeling has its clear advantages. Xi is able to present as a market-friendly modern man, yet maintain solid old-style communist credentials.
While other princelings have inevitably made the news surrounding allegations of corruption (think Bo Xilai), Xi seems to have avoided any negative scrutiny.
Second, he appears affable and highly competent. During his rise to the top, Xi seems to have shown considerable skill in working with rival factions in the Party without making too many enemies. Xi has held key positions in the coastal provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang, as well as Shanghai municipality.
These efforts are hardly small-fry; the three administrative regions are economically equivalent to Ireland, Austria and Finland, and have a combined population of over 100 million people.
As an internationalist, Xi seems confident yet modest. His official visit to the United States earlier this year was widely seen as a success. And as the world moves towards geopolitical multi-polarity, Xi’s style of statesmanship matters. Xi may even represent a new kind of Chinese diplomat - one with a highly visible wife.
For the past 25 years Xi has been married to Chinese folk singer Peng Liyuan, who is adored by the population and has hitherto enjoyed a much greater public profile than her husband. It might be a stretch to predict the emergence of a Chinese Camelot, but the benefits of the couple on the international stage would be wide-ranging. It would certainly do wonders to soften China’s image.
But Chinese politics is a game of inches. It’s also complex and opaque, and it’s hard to know how much control Xi will actually have. Predecessors tend to remain highly influential, and in contrast to the Western system, the newly appointed tend only to reach the height of their authority towards the end of their tenure.
Jiang loomed large during Hu’s two terms, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he continued to do so, or if Hu attempts to do the same.
Leadership still matters, though. Early last month, Henry Kissinger offered his two cents suggesting “each Chinese leader … reflected the mission and conditions of his period.” If these comments hold true, expect Xi to continue a pragmatic domestic economic and social reform agenda, with an eye on a more assertive – and involved – international presence.
Just don’t expect any summits, celebrities or taskforces in the first 100 days to get them there.
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