Why China Can’t Pick Good Leaders
Image Credit: Rain Rannu

Why China Can’t Pick Good Leaders


As China’s top leaders get ready for their summer retreat in Beidaihe, the exclusive beach resort  225 kilometers north of Beijing, the rest of the world remains in the dark about the jockeying for power inside the world’s largest ruling party. By convention, the appointments for the party’s top positions are usually finalized when Chinese leaders escape the oppressive summer heat, pollution, and humidity engulfing Beijing to swim and relax toward the end of July in Beidaihe, known for its cool weather and clean air.

The ugly purge of Bo Xilai may have removed a lethal threat to leadership unity at the top for the moment, but that hasn’t ended the fierce competition for the most senior and desirable positions or reduced the uncertainty over the impact of leadership change on China’s domestic and foreign policies. Compared with previous leadership transitions, the impending shift is perhaps among the most significant in terms of scope and timing.

Of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), seven will retire. There will be seven new faces if the party decides to maintain the PSC’s current size. Should the party reduce the size of the PSC to seven, a move that may streamline decision-making, five new members will be chosen at the next party congress scheduled for the autumn. While analysts have focused most of their attention on the leading contenders for the PSC, the party’s most powerful decision-making body, it’s worth noting that the 25-member Politburo itself will have at least 15 fresh faces. Of these, two or three new members under the age of 52 will likely be strong contenders for the party’s top two positions in five years. In other words, this transition will select not just the next generation of leaders, but also identify the promising candidates to succeed Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, respectively the incoming general secretary of the Communist Party and the premier of the State Council.

In terms of timing, the transition is taking place at a critical juncture of the party’s rule.  Economically, the much-hyped “China Model” is seen as exhausted. Economic growth is slowing, due to slumping exports and weak final domestic demand. Huge risks in the financial system are piling up. The real estate sector is on the brink of a spectacular bust. Most sensible people, including those inside the government, have realized that growth driven by investment and export can no longer continue. Difficult structural reforms await the next leadership.

Politically, the Bo affair has revealed the deep rift within the ruling elites over the distribution of power and protection of their private interests. Elite unity, the glue holding together the regime, has shown signs of fraying. Chinese citizens increasingly want to have a say in how the country is governed. Despite the party’s costly censorship system, the spread of the information revolution, particularly Weibo, the Chinese version of the Twitter, is challenging the authority of the party.  Dissidents have become more defiant, as the example of Chen Guangcheng’s daring escape from illegal house detention in late April shows. Calls for democracy and political reform, long suppressed by the party, have resurfaced in the Chinese media.   These are the warning signs that the post-1989 political paradigm, which combines selective repression with promises of ever-rising standards of living, is about to unravel.

So the question is whether the new leaders are up to these challenges?

In the eyes of most Western elites, businessmen and politicians alike, Chinese leaders are practically synonymous with “smart, capable, dynamic, decisive, and forward looking.” Many of them are impressed, usually after relatively brief meetings, by the perceived sophistication, intelligence, and leadership skills of Chinese officials.

Bill In Shanghai
September 11, 2012 at 16:49

Despite some shiny buildings and (sometimes crashing) high speed trains, bottom line is China is still the 3rd world, and will operate as such.  Everyone will grab for all the money and power they can (illegally) get, then flee before their enemies can pounce.  It's how 3rd worlders operate (me, now!).  Not one of the gangsters in Beijing is interested in the future of China – only themselves.

July 7, 2012 at 20:02

I see. So, China was a Mongolian colony!

July 4, 2012 at 07:12

How do you know Romney will be prez?
your comment is worthless.

July 4, 2012 at 01:19

@Siddharth:  Some corrections: Kubilai Khan was Mongolian, not chinese.  Zhang He was not a leader.  He was just a navigator.  He was a Mongol subject, an enuch of Arabic decendant and was used by the Ming emperor later due to his navigation skills.

Lin Pei
July 3, 2012 at 16:05

Minxin Pei has a personal axe to grind with China.  His views are not credible.  I think Hu/Wen did a good job so far in the face of multifaceted challenges and changing global dynamics.  To judge China and its leaders through western systems and failing economic theories is myopic to say the least.  Give it time, rome wasn't built in a day and rushing headlong in any direction would likely result in grief and worse, regret.  Patience is not an american virtue but wishing your systems on others could end up being a quintessential american curse.  I'd suggest that America help Iraq and to some extent Afghanistan and Pakistan get back on their feet before poking its superpower nose into more wars.  Iraqis have been dealt with a brutal hand by an America that went to war on unjust and unjustifed reasons.  Stop the suffering of Iraqis.  Accept that a part of Islam will always be anti-American.  If American leaders were a tenth as good as China's, America won't be mired in wars that it cannot ever hope to win.  There are haters of America in Iraq today and there'll always be. Get over it and get out of Iraq.

July 2, 2012 at 22:35

But they had good leaders in the past – Kublai Khan, Zhang He, Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin.

S. Suchindranath Aiyer
July 2, 2012 at 14:12

Atlast,  an endeavour in which India is well ahead of China!  (The abundant availability of bad and inadequate leadersip, I mean)

John Chan
July 2, 2012 at 03:04

@Kangmin Zheng,
Another demonstration of selective reporting and fabrication thru the thin air to smear Chinese learders? Bloomberg was showing its maestro talent of  the American political mud slinging technique, it omitted that the original report said there is no indication Xi's involvement in those businesses.
Mud slinging Xi to divert attention on the tax evasion crimes committed by the American president to be Mitt Romney?

John Chan
July 2, 2012 at 01:23

“Why can't Pie rally for a good leader like Sarah Palin to be the next president of US?” it is a good reminder for the author to write some promotional materials for Sarah quick, so that when the American announces all Chinese an enemy of the state like they did to the Japanese in the WWII, he can show those materials as a proof of his loyalty to the Anglo masters before being deported or sent to concentration camp like the Japanese in WWII.

July 1, 2012 at 14:10

Why can't Pie rally for a good leader like Sarah Palin to be the next president of US? 
She got charm, beauty, intelligence (not reading any magazines in order to remain clear unbiased mind), neo-conservative and tea party supports;
and belives sex and baby before marriage for minor, supreme court is irrelevant as constitution, state rights to secede from union, guns and weapons for everyone, shooting of unarmed wildlife, freedom to quit when elected, non ivy league, selfmade millionaire but no connection to billionaire,  good note keeping on her palm, transparency using public email,  …
Sharp vision on Russia is priceless and no one will question her birth certificate because of her skin color.

Kangmin Zheng
June 30, 2012 at 11:33

Corruption is normal norm among elite members of CCP.   Bloomberg reported Xi and his extended family expanded their business interests to include minerals, real estate and mobile-phone equipment.

June 30, 2012 at 11:00

Pei's argument on National Leaders (how freaking incompetant everyone is) applies world wide.
Can Saudi change? with or without …!


June 30, 2012 at 02:57

The title is somewhat misleading. What makes a leader good? If a definition is omitted, then give some examples, counterexamples, or at least some point of comparison. Since none of those were provided, the title should probably read '…most capable/ best leaders'. While the author makes some perfectly valid points, many of those are failings common to all systems, and seem almost inherent to politics. Unless he is capable of devising some system that cure all these problems at once, those points provide rather flimsy evidence. At the end of the day, getting elected is a popularity contest, while being suited for the job is another matter altogether. Short of a perfect meritocracy, nothing is likely to continually ensure the latter, while meritocracies have a plethora of associated weaknesses, and are far from perfect in practice.

June 29, 2012 at 15:13

Now, if ever there was someone with real leadership qualities, that would be Bo Xilai.  Pity about the fallout from his wife's failure to cover up the silencing of a foreign blackmailer, and a British at that. Otherwise, Bo would have been the man that the West would fear.  Apart from the outstanding Mr Putin, that is.

50 cents brigade
June 29, 2012 at 13:50

Pity, where is the freedom of speech so champion by the media? Comments against another state and its leaders are welcome but not against the article. So much for freedom of press. Are you afraid of other contradictory comments?

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