As China’s global stature continues to rise, international media breathlessly follow its policy moves and maneuvers. Yet the driving force behind all China’s decisions, the Chinese Communist Party(CCP), remains notoriously opaque. To gain some insights into the current generation of CCP leadership, The Diplomat speaks with regular China Power contributor Kerry Brown about his new book, The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China.
In your book, you mention the increasingly hereditary nature of the CCP leadership selection process. Do you think the rise of “princelings” is undermining the image CCP’s cultivated image as a meritocracy?
The issue for a Communist Party with over 80 million members now is that the location of trust is important. In the book, I use the figure produced by Danish expert on the CCP Kjeld Eric Borgsard who said that the group of elites — officials at vice ministerial level and above — is no bigger than about 3,000 people in China. But even in a group this size there are different networks, different allegiances and forces of cohesion. So the purest way that the Party now seems to select the true custodians is partly through having stellar family links — through marriage or a direct blood line — and partly through performance. Performance alone in this competitive environment is not enough. There need to be signs of deeper allegiance to the Party as an historic, cultural and supra-political force. In an odd way, the selection procedure now with this sort of unstated “family” dimension is akin to the doctrine used in the early part of the Cultural Revolution from 1967 of identifying class purity through blood line. It is very ironic that a generation so scarred and harmed by that era should, perhaps unconsciously, have resurrected one of its old ideological totems.
The current generation of leaders are the first group to have come of age during the chaos of China’s Cultural Revolution. What sort of influence do you think this has had on their personalities and their politics?
The Cultural Revolution was 100 percent of their political atmosphere at the most formative time in their lives. Despite its retreat into a sort of taboo territory now (there was briefly more openness about the Cultural Revolution in the 1990s within China) it is clear that the different leaders of contemporary China had their world view formed at that time. Yu Jie, in his new book, China’s Godfather: Xi Jinping (published in Chinese in Hong Kong this May by Open Books), states that the Cultural Revolution experience means that all the current leaders are profoundly shaped by utopian Maoism and are programmed to appeal to the politics of this time as a sort of default. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do think that the doomed idealism of that period gave today’s leaders some of their harsher pragmatism and underlines their very ambiguous relationship with idealistic, mobilizing conviction politics. Xi Jinping is clearly willing to pursue this route, despite the memory he must have of a bitter 1960s and 1970s when he was unable too see his father for so many years.
You argue that the battle over the Party’s significance is never far away. What’s your take on the significance of Xi’s vision for Party values, which includes both the “12 socialist core values” and the “Chinese Dream”?
This is part of a huge renegotiation of the role of the citizen and the individual in a China that is moving away from investment as a source of growth in its economy. China’s new economic model needs to raise personal consumption, now only a third of GDP, and Chinese people will likely be sources of tax revenue for the state. There are two great new negotiations at the heart of Xi’s political program — a bit like the three arrows of Abenomics. The first is the raising of consumption mentioned above. The second is the decentralizing of some fiscal powers from the center to the provinces. Both are being used to deliver more efficiency in a China post double digit growth. And both are politically challenging because they involve the ceding of raw control in some areas combined with the search for new ways to exercise that control for the Party in others. I suspect that as Xi’s period continues his tone will become increasingly nationalistic. Xi will appeal for emotional support from Chinese people as they are given a more prominent role in their own economy as consumers. The “Chinese Dream” is at the heart of this personal appeal.
The CCP likes to keep up an image of unity, where all decisions are made by consensus. Your book paints a rather different picture, one of tensions and factionalism at the highest levels. How does political and personal competition play out among China’s top leaders?
In my book, I try to show the human face of the Party, and look at how as an organization it is constituted by people, by specific individuals, who have to promote their own interests within the framework the Party’s belief system provides. The Party is not some abstract entity with clear objective rules, but a dynamic, evolving and changing entity, and at the heart of that are the interactions and relationships between its core members and the worlds around them. I am also keen to show that political maneuvering and campaigning exists in China as much as anywhere else.
What do your insights into the inner workings of the Chinese government tell you about the potential for far-reaching economic reforms?
Your book highlights the significance of trying to understand the personalities of China’s top leaders. How does one go about crafting a personal picture of these men, given the incredibly secretive nature of Chinese politics?
They are secretive and protective, but more and more of their personalities and words come out, and we have to use these to understand them. Chinese leaders speak — a lot! It is in a unique socio dialect, and from a world rigid with control — but there are ways of interpreting it and finding signs of difference between them. They are no more nor less knowable than many western politicians.