China’s coming struggle for power

Kerry Brown
14 May 2009

A recent Shanghai taxi-ride was a lesson in China'a constant capacity to surprise. The driver responded to my question about what business had been like lately by saying: "Pretty good. But I only work three days a week anyway. I have other interests. Birds. I have seven birds". If this conjured the vision of a scholar-gentleman from the Qing dynasty driving the car, it was quickly dispelled. "They make a pile of money", he continued. "What, through trading rare breeds?" I was struggling to catch up. "No, no", he said. "Betting. You get them to fight against each other, and make money on who wins."

Kerry Brown is an associate fellow on the Asia programme, Chatham House. He is the author of Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century (Anthem Press, 2007), The Rise of the Dragon: Inward and Outward Investment in China in the Reform Period 1978-2007 (Chandos, 2008) and Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China (Anthem Press, forthcoming, 2009). His website is here 

Also by Kerry Brown on openDemocracy:

"China changes itself: an Olympics report" (20 August 2008)

"China's nervous transition" (22 September 2008)

"China in 2009: a year for surprise" (14 January 2009)

"China's political tunnel" (22 January 2009)

"China's giant struggle" (5 February 2009)

I was shocked, and said that it was banned in England on grounds of cruelty. He was not impressed. "So what about your great Tyson or Lewis knocking the last breath out of each other in boxing matches? What's the difference? We make sure the animals never get badly harmed or die." He snorted. "It's the same. Anyway, it's part of our culture."

Enterprise, practicality, pride, and a touch of amoral ruthlessness: all the elements are there at the everyday level in modern China's search for a business opportunity. As I continued on my way to Changsha, I couldn't help reflecting on how short a distance there was between the Shanghai taxi-driver and the kind of calculations that will be made in and around the Zhongnanhai - Beijing's central-government compound - between now and the next Chinese Communist Party congress in 2012.

Room at the top

The internal leadership battles are already warming up. A senior official told me: "There is now a very active power-struggle going on in the upper reaches of the party". True, the party has many problems to tend to, and the last thing it wants is a large, open, and heated fight. The game-plan will be to keep the political competition and personal rivalries as far out of public sight as feasible. But the differences between the figures now jostling to replace the current president and prime minister - Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao - may make that unrealistic (see Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China, Anthem Press, forthcoming, 2009). 

Since the seventeenth party congress in October 2007, there has been a consensus that the next party secretary (and thus president)  will be the current "number five" in the politburo's standing committee, Xi Jinping; and that the premier will be the figure ranked after him at "number six", Li Keqiang.

The prospects are brighter for the former than for the latter. Xi Jinping is looking ahead to September 2009, when a number of vice-chair seats on the central military commission falls vacant. A sure route to power in China since the time of Mao Zedong has been control of the gun. If Xi secures a vice-chair place, his route to the top - barring disaster - is assured.

For Li Keqiang, things are more complicated - and even his link to the current president, Hu Jintao, don't make them any easier. Li has been handed the sensitive health portfolio in recent months. This brings great responsibility (since building a semi-decent healthcare infrastructure has been a key government goal since the Sars epidemic in 2003) and resources (a big part of China's $600 billion fiscal-stimulus package is dedicated to the sector), but also risk (for the issue of healthcare in China is as conflictual as anywhere else). The assignment of this key area of policy to Li can be seen as a leadership test, but also a means of setting him up for failure and fall. 

The suggestion is reinforced by the fact that other senior figures have an eye on the premiership: the highly regarded Wang Qishan - a vice-premier who is not a member of the party's standing committee but does belong to the politburo. Wang is the leading figure in charge of the economy, and has been at the forefront of dialogue both with the United States and the European Union on economic matters. More ominously, Wang is a protégé of former party secretary and president Jiang Zemin; a man who, even in his mid-80s, still lingers around the edge of power, and is able to offer significant patronage.

Wang Qishan has another definite advantage over Li Keqiang: the latter has notably poor communication skills (which now matter as much in China as in any other political culture). This flaw irritates even his supporters.

Moreover, behind Wang are other figures hungry for advancement. They include the active and effective party secretary of Chongqing in southeast China, Bo Xilai. After serving as minister fir trade, Bo was sent down from Beijing as a way of removing him from any possible leadership challenge. But he remains capable of launching high-profile and attention-grabbing initiatives. 

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on China:

Perry Link, "Charter 08: a blueprint for China" (5 January 2009)

Wei Jingsheng, "China's political tunnel" (22 January 2009)

Li Datong, "China: democracy in action" (19 March 2009)

Temstsel Hao, "Dharamsala: forging Tibetans' future" (29 April 2009)

A game of patience

Li Keqiang shares with prime minister Wen Jiabao an attribute that can operate in different circumstances as weakness or strength: he lacks a constituency in the party. This could destroy his ambitions, or be their making. A Xi Jinping who reaches the summit, for example, would find it undesirable to have a deputy with his own power-base to mount threats or challenges; yet a standoff between different party factions might in the end lead to Li Keqiang easing through as a compromise candidate (see Li Datong, "China's leadership: the next generation", 3 October 2007).

At present, however, another consideration overrides all these calculations: to express overt interest in a leadership bid is for everyone out of the question. Any display of ambition would be leapt upon by opponents and their supporters as destabilising, "anti-party" - and a reason for automatic disqualification from the upper reaches of power.

In the approach to 2012, it will be more a game of a thousand subtle gestures, slight moves, tiny actions. The bird-owning taxi-driver pithily described the technique of his own sport: "Make a few small bets; then, when you've sized up the opponent, make a big bet - and clean up the show." A guide to the manoeuvrings in the Zhongnanhai can indeed come from surprising places. 

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