In about a year’s time, a new group of leaders in Beijing will succeed President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. At the moment, analysts are focused primarily on the make-up of the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, the supreme policy making body of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Vice President Xi Jinping and Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang, both members of the standing committee now, are assured of succeeding Hu and Wen, respectively. As a result, the guessing game that has engrossed many China watchers is over who will replace the other seven retiring members.
Speculating about top personnel decisions is both risky and not all that interesting. Such decisions are reached through intricate factional bargaining and compromises, and the ultimate outcome is typically not determined until the very end. Worse, handicapping the chances of frontrunners usually distracts us from trying to understand the broader policy implications of leadership transition. We become too preoccupied with the shifting fortunes of factions within the CCP leadership to explore whether leadership change actually affects policy.
So a more fruitful way of getting ourselves prepared for China’s upcoming leadership transition is to look back at history and examine whether the past top leadership changes resulted in significant foreign policy changes, and what explained such major shifts.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of data points here. The CCP has experienced only four leadership transitions: from Mao Zedong to Hua Guofeng (1976), from Hua to Deng Xiaoping (1979), from Deng to Jiang Zemin (1994-95), and from Jiang to Hu Jintao (2002). Of the four cases, only the last three should count because Hua, a transitional figure, didn’t have a real chance to remake Chinese foreign policy.
When we look at the three meaningful leadership transitions, the greatest change in foreign policy occurred when Deng took over power in 1979. He normalized relations with the United States, fundamentally reoriented Chinese foreign policy in a pro-Western direction, ended Chinese support for leftist forces around the world, and launched a punitive, albeit costly, war against Vietnam. In addition, he articulated a new strategic principle: Chinese foreign policy is to serve the country’s economic modernization. (His famous dictum on keeping a low profile was prescribed after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, more than a decade later).
The transition from Deng to Jiang in the mid-1990s didn’t bring about a fundamental shift. (Deng was too ill to influence policy by 1994, even though he didn’t die until 1997). Still, there were minor but important adjustments. Jiang moved China closer to the West and accelerated its integration into the West-dominated international system, culminating in the accession into the World Trade Organization at the end of his tenure, perhaps his most enduring legacy.
Another notable shift under Jiang was China’s regional diplomacy. He upgraded China’s ties with Moscow, and opened China’s charm offensive toward ASEAN nations. But, at the same time, Jiang adopted a tougher stance toward Japan and was blamed for the rapid deterioration in Sino-Japanese ties under his watch. On Taiwan, Jiang initially tried to reach out to Taiwan’s new leader, Lee Teng-hui, but Lee’s turn toward a more pro-independence stance in the mid-1990s forced Jiang to take a much harder line.
The most important policy shift that occurred when Hu became the CCP general secretary in 2002 was Beijing’s Taiwan policy. At the end of Jiang’s second term, Beijing and Taipei were on a collision course. Hu’s immediate response was a two-pronged approach. He passed a tough sounding ‘Anti-Secession Law’ to warn Taipei against any attempts at de jure independence, but also took a big gamble on reaching out to Taiwan’s main opposition parties, especially the Kuomintang, to isolate the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Unlike Jiang, Hu outsourced a significant portion of the management of the Taiwan policy to Washington, pressuring the Bush administration to rein in the DPP government. Hu’s new Taiwan policy paid off handsomely when the Kuomintang recaptured the presidency in March 2008. Elsewhere in the region, Hu also modified Jiang’s policy. He improved ties with Japan, but effectively downgraded relations with Putin’s Russia, which repeatedly disappointed Beijing in terms of arms sales and energy deals. Much less pro-American than Jiang, Hu responded respectfully but coolly to overtures from the Bush and the Obama administrations for a new and better relationship. Under his watch, Sino-US ties were essentially on autopilot. Thankfully, as the United States was bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last decade, Chinese passivity didn’t matter much.
These examples of substantive foreign policy shifts following three leadership transitions show that succession at the top of the CCP does have real consequences. On the whole, it’s rare for cautious Chinese leaders to fundamentally alter Beijing’s foreign policy. The exception was Deng. There are two explanations. One is power and authority—Deng acquired virtually uncontested power and authority in 1979, which allowed him to initiate drastic foreign policy changes quickly. The other is the compatibility between the CCP’s top domestic priority and foreign policy objectives. The revolutionary change Deng unleashed at home required a pragmatic pro-Western foreign policy.
Deng’s two successors, Jiang and Hu, obviously lacked Deng’s power and authority to take Chinese foreign policy in a completely different direction. But they didn’t need to. When they ascended to the top position, what was needed was adjustment and fine-tuning. In both cases, we see a successor attempting to balance, even remedy, his predecessor’s policy. Jiang built upon Deng’s pro-Western legacy, but he also expanded China’s regional diplomatic orbit by reaching out to Russia and ASEAN so that there was a better balance between China’s ties with major Western powers and its neighbours. In Hu’s case, he achieved this balance by improving ties with Japan, but cooling off relations with Russia.
The relative ease with which new Chinese leaders can adjust Beijing’s foreign policy must come as a surprise. The conventional wisdom puts too much emphasis on the lengthy time it takes for new leaders to consolidate power and on the power struggle at the top. But the record of previous transitions shows that not only do the personal preferences of the new top leaders have a real effect on foreign policy, but also these leaders can initiate substantive policy changes relatively quickly. One can offer many explanations, but the most persuasive—and obvious—one is this: unlike domestic policy change, which tends to encounter resistance from entrenched interest groups benefiting from the status quo, foreign policy shift faces much less opposition. Top elites tend to have a consensus on the need for such a shift, and few entrenched groups (except for the powerful military) have acquired veto power over a new leader’s initiatives to rebalance or adjust China’s foreign policy.