New Leaders Forum

Beijing Under Siege?

Beijing is faced with a raft of policy challenges. What will the current leadership leave for the next this year?

The high-profile escape of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng last week from house arrest has sparked renewed speculation over the stability of China’s domestic political situation. The question now is whether despite the fact that Wang Lijun and then Chen deciding to seek U.S. assistance caused considerable embarrassment to the Chinese Communist Party’s much-vaunted unity, these incidents will have provided Beijing with the opportunity to publicly enforce its stand on factional struggles, thus paving the way for longer-term unity under a new leadership later this year.

It’s also not inconceivable that the Bo Xilai affair could increase expectations for the party to expedite political reforms. And while this may not always be perceived positively by individual party members, it has nonetheless made clear the need for change at a higher level. Still, all this may also heighten party tensions, particularly in the short-term, over how the leadership transition ought to take place.  

On the foreign policy front, Beijing has its hands full with a range of regional and global challenges. Closer to home, there are China’s ties with North Korea, which have come under increased scrutiny. The recent claims that China sold North Korea components for a military transporter aren’t likely to go down well with Beijing’s policymakers. And while the decision by Beijing to throw its lot in with the international community in rebuking Pyongyang over its latest missile test marked a rare break from its usual support for its neighbor, the fact that China-North Korean ties were reaffirmed in a high-profile meeting shortly after suggests that Beijing’s dealings with its neighbor are likely to be characterized by continuity rather than change.

The standoff with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal over the past few weeks, meanwhile, has also raised the possibility of conflict. At present, there’s little sign that either Beijing or Manila will acquiesce to the other’s demands. Philippine President Benigno Aquino, for example, is reported to have said that the disputed areas belong to the Philippines and that it would continue to “show the flag” despite the presence of China’s maritime vessels.

China, for its part, has by some accounts described the South China Sea as a core national interest, meaning that it won’t back down from its own claims. As such, any new leadership in China is expected to project a strong front as far as China’s territorial interests are concerned, something that could further aggravate relations between China and its maritime neighbors, especially those with similar littoral claims.

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These are testing times for China, posing the most severe of tests for the Chinese government since Tiananmen more than two decades ago. How will Beijing respond? There’s a Chinese saying that “hidden in every crisis is an opportunity.” How the current leadership reacts to its latest challenges – and whether it really can find such opportunities – will plot the course for the fifth generation of leaders.

Liu Liu is a Research Analyst in the China Program. Benjamin Ho Tze Ern is an Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.