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.