The Debate

Will the Real Chinese Leaders Please Stand Up?

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The Debate

Will the Real Chinese Leaders Please Stand Up?

Names being floated for the next Politburo Standing Committee show two very different directions for China.

For more than two decades beginning in 1956, CBS and then NBC aired a television show “To Tell the Truth,” in which a panel of celebrities attempted to identify which one of three contestants was telling the truth about who he/she was. I always found the show rather painfully gripping as I waited for the final reveal, when the host would ask, “Would the real [so and so] please stand up?” 

That pretty much sums up how I feel about the Chinese leadership succession process. I am more than ready for the host of the Chinese Communist Party to ask, “Will the real Chinese leadership please stand up?”

It has been an exhausting process, trying the patience of even the most dedicated Pekinologists. As China watcher Francesco Sisci has noted, there are still “so many elements up in the air,” including: how many people will be in the standing committee? Will there be a woman? Will Hu Jintao stay on as chairman of the Central Military Commission?

I will confess that for me, the greatest source of frustration—dare I say upset—stems from the most recent set of names being bandied about for the next Politburo Standing Committee. The list includes the expected Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and Wang Qishan, along with Zhang Gaoli and Yu Zhengsheng. However, instead of Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang, there is Liu Yunshan and Zhang Dejiang. If you have not been following the succession process closely, who sits where may not sound that significant, but actually, the future of the country could well hinge on the differences between the two sets of men.

Zhang Dejiang and Liu Yunshan have made their careers by serving as the protectorates of Party orthodoxy. Zhang, who was trained in economics in North Korea, is most well-known for suppressing the flow of information during the SARS outbreak while serving as Guangdong Party Secretary and holding oversight responsibility for the corruption-plagued, money-losing high speed rail program. Central Committee Propaganda chief Liu, in turn, has been partly responsible for the Party’s multi-billion dollar outreach effort to spread the Chinese media’s version of truth to the rest of the world. In the face of democratic uprisings throughout the Middle East, Liu claimed, “The hostile forces in the world have intensified their infiltration into our ideology by constantly changing their tactics.”

In contrast, Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao line up as the Energizer bunnies of reform. As Guangdong Party Secretary, Wang has made it easier for non-governmental organizations to be legally registered, pushed reforms that have made the bureaucracy more transparent, and advocated strengthening intellectual property rights. He also won widespread kudos for managing social unrest in his province with a light hand, arguing in the process that officials need to “balance maintaining stability and basic rights while helping people to express their needs.”

Li Yuanchao, now head of the Party’s Organization Department, used his previous position as Jiangsu Party secretary to push through a different set of important social and political reforms. He sought the public’s opinion when hiring and firing government leaders, ensured that Jiangsu provided education for the children of migrant workers, and closed thousands of polluting factories in a bid to improve the local environment.

China’s next leaders face a set of stark challenges: what to do about vested interests and the future of economic reform; what to do about a foreign policy that is repelling rather than attracting other countries; what to do about 500 million Weibo users who want a say in the future of their country; and perhaps most important, what to do to shore up the legitimacy of the Communist Party in the face of ongoing scandals and corruption? There can be little doubt that the solutions proposed by Zhang and Liu will differ fundamentally from those advocated by Li and Wang.

Of course, as many of China’s neighbors have proved over the years, significant reform can arise from the most unlikely sources. I’ll hold on to that thought on November 8, if Zhang and Liu rather than Li and Wang are the ones marching into the Great Hall of the People behind Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and the others.

Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, 'The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future.'  She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.