Relativity is the key concept in measuring the success of China’s power transition. By this standard, one has to grudgingly congratulate the Chinese Communist Party for producing its first-ever, nominally at least, complete transfer of power from one top leader to another last week. The outgoing party chief, Hu Jintao, retired from both his party post and his position as the commander-in-chief, allowing Xi Jinping, now China’s new leader, to claim full authority in one stroke. Had Hu followed the precedent set by his predecessors, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, and decided to stay on for two extra years as the chairman of the party’s central military affairs committee, this would have been a semi-failed transition.
The good news does not stop there. As expected, the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s most powerful decision-making body, has been downsized from nine to seven, thus making it easier for Xi to build a coalition in a body often paralyzed by decision-making through consensus.
Perhaps the best news for Xi is that the bar for his success has been set relatively low by the departing administration’s failure to pursue real reforms during the preceding decade. So even minor initiatives to tackle some of China’s social and economic problems should make Xi look good by comparison.
Judging by his first, albeit brief, public speech, Xi certainly did not disappoint. His remarks at the ceremony unveiling the new standing committee on November 15 were direct and notable for the lack of tired official slogans and rhetoric. His confident demeanor strengthened his public image as well.
Unfortunately, that is where the good news ends. Compared with Hu’s rise to the top a decade ago, Xi certainly has gained more power. But it is worth pointing out that he will face enormous constraints, at least in the short term, in gaining decisive influence at the top level of the Chinese power hierarchy.
The most immediate obstacle to any prospects of major policy shifts lies at the very top. The new standing committee has a strong conservative presence. The perception of the new team is that it is dominated by relatively mediocre and risk-averse leaders. Xi may not find many allies who would support an agenda of bold reforms, assuming that Xi has such an agenda in mind (something we honestly do not know). The line-up of the new committee confirms that the selection was based partly on seniority (all the two-term Politburo members under 68 were promoted), but mainly on the need to maintain a balance of power among various factions and interests. Such considerations have produced a team that lacks reform credentials or shared policy preferences. It would be too optimistic or premature to believe that such a delicately balanced body could address China’s problems quickly and decisively.