The truth is, of course, quite different. Compared with their revolutionary predecessors, the current generation of leaders is obviously better educated, younger, culturally more sophisticated. But does the current system in China actually promote the most capable leaders to the top? Can such leaders actually govern effectively once installed?
Evidence based on academic research and press reports in China suggest that personal patronage and factional strength, not demonstrated achievements, are far more important in the selection of top leaders than objective factors such as record of administration. For example, Victor Shih of the University of California in San Diego and his collaborators combed through extensive personnel data and local economic growth rates to find whether promotion of officials in China actually depends on their demonstrated ability to deliver economic growth. Their conclusion is that political patronage (specifically ties with powerful leaders), not growth rates, determines promotion.
This finding equally applies to the selection of top leaders. With a small number of exceptions, most candidates slated for top positions in the PSC and the Politburo don’t have records that inspire confidence and admiration. Other than the most strict and objective limit – their age – the only factor that influences their chances of being elevated to the top is whether they have powerful backers.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Political patronage at the top in the leadership transition process can only produce a fragile coalition, cobbled together through bargaining and horse-trading. Key appointments are made not based on individual competence or proven record, but on personal loyalty and considerations of how such appointments help balance the distribution of power among factions. Under such circumstances, mismatch of skill sets and policy portfolios is the norm, not the exception.
But the most damaging effect of this Byzantine system of leadership selection is that it inevitably results in a collective leadership prone to factional compromise, even policy paralysis. The fact that China has failed to undertake much-needed economic reforms to rebalance the economy in the previous decade must be attributed to such a fundamentally flawed system of picking leaders.
To be fair to the Communist Party, such political pathology is not unique to China. All autocratic regimes without strongman rule pick leaders through oligarchic bargaining, with predictable outcomes: these regimes ossify and ultimately fall from power.
It’s doubtful whether Chinese leaders are willing to do anything to change the current system, even though they must be aware of its fatal flaws. So the Beidaihe summer conclave will produce plenty of suspense and drama, but not the right leaders for steering China in a different direction.