Trans-Pacific View

China’s Leadership Fault Lines: Progress vs. Power

Insight from Randal L. Phillips

China’s Leadership Fault Lines: Progress vs. Power
Credit: U.S. Department of State

The Rebalance authors Mercy Kuo and Angie Tang regularly engage subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia.  This conversation with Randal L. Phillips Partner at The Mintz Group and head of the Group’s Beijing office and activities across Asia, who previously served 28 years with the Central Intelligence Agency’s National Clandestine Service, most recently serving as the Chief CIA representative in Chinais the 32nd in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

Describe the difference between China’s old and new leadership models, and identify key traits of President Xi Jinping’s leadership.

In trying to provide a perspective of how Xi differs from his predecessors and has legacy power issues with which he has to deal, I often suggest thinking of the film Godfather inspired by the five families of New York. Most of Hu Jintao’s nine-member leadership sought in practice to protect their own family interests and sectors of the economy which they had essentially divided up and from which they derived very significant benefit. Corruption hit a massive scale, and bold decision-making was stifled by the need for consensus and protecting interests. Xi Jinping  – along with Li Keqiang who was relatively clean from corruption – saw this clearly and came to power with a plan. Building on his deep understanding of how to wield the levers of power, his status as a first tier princeling, and a personal confidence that he was born to rule, he recognized he needed to attack this issue as an existential threat to the Party’s rule, and to consolidate power in himself quickly. In doing this, as several observers have pointed out, he “talks like Deng, but acts like Mao.”

What are the key drivers and objectives of Xi’s rapid consolidation of power?

First and foremost, Xi Jinping grew up seeing both the good and the bad of the system in a very personal, up close manner through what happened to his father Xi Zhongxun, one of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary comrades and first generation of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership. Building on his family’s political lineage through his professional career, Xi knows how the system works and how to exert power. His confident air and mantle of “saving the Party,” combined with his personal self-confidence, led him to act decisively and immediately upon assuming power. He witnessed how Hu Jintao was hamstrung by former Chinese President Jiang Zemin for virtually all of his time as the top leader. Xi was determined to not allow that pattern to continue under his watch. The anti-corruption campaign was, and is, the perfect vehicle used deftly against those who have challenged Xi’s rise to power, and increasingly against Jiang loyalists to weaken his continued strong levels of Party support.

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What fault lines are fueling internal power factions in the Chinese Communist Party, and what is the impact on domestic and international perceptions of CCP cohesion?

The most significant fault lines fall along three different areas of contention. The first is between so-called reformers and conservative elements. It is true that a coalition of leaders – led by Premier Li Keqiang, People’s Bank of China Chairman Zhou Xiaochuan, and Finance Minister Lou Jiwei – are more eager to support the reform package outlined in the Third Plenum document. They face considerable resistance in the Party and government bureaucracy led by propaganda chief Liu Yunshan, the security services and major state-owned enterprises. Political and economic interests being protected by powerful party patrons add to this tension, and intensify the standoff that has stifled progress on reform.  The second is Xi’s efforts to deal with the still powerful Jiang faction. Much of the effort in the run-up to the next Party Congress in late 2017 will be to replace Jiang’s supporters with Xi loyalists.  Finally, the third is within the PLA, where there is significant resistance, particularly from the army, to the command reform Xi has just imposed on the military system.

Briefly assess current U.S. China policy vis-à-vis the U.S. rebalance to Asia.

The rise of China was something long supported by U.S. policymakers of both parties. However, it has become apparent in recent years that China seems less interested in being a “responsible stakeholder” in the current international system. Beijing seems more inclined to bend or reshape the system to one that advances China’s interests through aggressive use of its market power and rising military capabilities. In recognition of Beijing’s behavior, the U.S. rebalance to Asia is a necessary step to reassure regional friends and allies that the U.S. is committed to the region, hedge against a more assertive China, and protect America’s interests in Asia. To be effective, this rebalance cannot be solely military related; it must have a strong economic component and the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a key part of that. The U.S. is mindful that China seeks to “salami slice” its way to eroding confidence in U.S. commitment to the region, and seeking to change the situation on the ground through steps short of conflict. 

Which elements of U.S.-China relations might improve, worsen or change under a new U.S. president?

No matter who is elected as president this November, he or she will face an even more contentious relationship with China in the years ahead. This is guaranteed by the facts that the Chinese leadership sees the U.S. as the only force in the world which is on par as a “great power” and as a strategic competitor who is committed to regime change in China, and believes the U.S. is on the decline strategically and now is the time to push the U.S. back from the Western Pacific. The Chinese leadership has taken advantage of the Obama administration’s focus on Middle East and terrorist issues, and unwillingness to push back on China, to change the status quo on the ground in the South China Sea and beyond. It will be incumbent upon the next U.S. president to demonstrate a steadfast commitment to push back on China, while seeking areas of cooperation where possible, and it will be more difficult to achieve this than at any time in the post-Mao era.

Mercy A. Kuo is an advisory board member of CHINADebate and was previously director of the Southeast Asia Studies and Strategic Asia Programs at the National Bureau of Asian Research. Angie O. Tang is Senior Advisor of Asia Value Advisors, a leading venture philanthropy advisory firm based in Hong Kong.