2012 is something of an election year worldwide. As many as twenty-five presidents will have been elected by the time it ends, including heads of state of some of the world's most important countries: the United States, Russia, France...and the People's Republic of China. What is different about China, however, is that the election here is (as usual) held not by popular vote but confined to a core group at the centre of power. The identity of the new leader depends not on the people's support but to a considerable extent on the balance of forces inside the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
If the identity of many of presidents is unknown until the people have delivered their verdict, in China the choice of the next head of state (and general secretary of the party) is known in advance. Unless there is a major, unforeseeable reversal, a key party congress towards the end of 2012 will select Xi Jinping as the designated successor of Hu Jintao. There is a difference, though, with past experiences of transition, when the new leader emerged from an elderly group of senior cadres (Deng Xiaoping is the classic example).
This time, according to reliable sources, the "constituency" that sanctioned Xi's appointment was composed of hundreds of senior party officials. True, the process by which he got to be nominated at all is less clear - a kind of black-box operation; but the very fact that his preferment will have ultimately required an election (albeit a limited one) to give him legitimacy suggests that the basis of the transfer of power in China has begun to respond to changing times.
But if the Xi Jinping era is about to begin, it also means the Hu Jintao era is coming to an end. How to evaluate the past decade, and what signals does it offer for the next period?
A new cadre
In my view, these ten years have been a period of lack of progress and the absence of political reform, which has meant that a backlog of various social problems (such as growing official corruption) has accumulated. The resulting tensions in society carry an enormous cost, including financial (with huge spending on domestic security, approaching the level of military expenditure). The overriding concern of this generation of leaders with ensuring "stability" has made them afraid of undertaking real action.
Why is that? The reason is that Hu Jintao and his colleagues in the heart of Chinese state power - the politburo's standing committee - share almost the same background. They moved through the education system in an entirely closed environment which prioritised obedience, imparted selective information, valued technical subjects over the humanities and social sciences, and depleted the ability to think independently.
Most importantly, they were products of a political movement, in some cases children of "pariah" families persecuted during the cultural revolution, whose background taught them to be loyal and conformist. This mental structure was reinforced by their predominant training as "technicians" or "engineers". These are not visionary or even ambitious individuals, but people who have achieved their status by a kind of miracle and whose sole purpose is to keep hold of it. Their subconscious attitude is conveyed by Hu Jintao's answer to a Japanese child who asked him why he wanted to be president: "Because the Chinese people picked me".
What are the chances that Xi Jinping's generation will be different? In some ways the signs should be positive. The rising Chinese communist leaders also grew up in an atmosphere dominated by politics, but most of their adulthood has coincided with the reform and opening up era launched by Deng Xiaoping at the end of the 1970s. They have had access to a far greater range of domestic and international information, enjoyed an affluent life, engaged in the pursuit of wealth and power, had the chance to travel to western countries and make contacts with people from them, and in some cases receive training in subjects such as economics and law. Again most importantly, they are active in politics rather then being mere products of politics.
These children of the 1980s acquired early an awareness of the dark and ruthless arts of politics as conducted in communist China, as well as of the new opportunities becoming available in business. Three in particular of the successor generation focused their commitment on politics: Xi Jinping, Liu Yuan (son of former president Liu Shaoqi) and Bo Xilai (son of another veteran, Bo Yibo). Almost at the same time, these three chose the same road after graduating from university by moving to the provinces and establishing a local power-base.
Two decades later, they entered the CCP's core leadership team, with Xi Jinping identified early as the likeliest candidate to be the next general secretary - and Bo Xilai as the most remarkable figure in China's political arena. Now, however, the discrediting of Bo Xilai after the extraordinary events in his Chongqing fiefdom has halted his rise - leaving the political field more open and less assured than it had seemed.
The approach of veterans' children to the summit of Chinese power should be favourable to political reform, if only because hardline political opponents will find it harder to attack their credentials. A comparison here, even though not necessarily a welcome one, is the way that Chiang Kai-shek's son launched Taiwan's political democratisation. The next leadership might in this respect have more imaginative as well as political space than its predecessor.
A bold design
In 2011, the intellectual Zhang Musheng - author of an influential study of rural development in the pre-reform era - published a book that advocated the implementation of a "new democracy" in China. This was needed, he said, to address the legacy of domestic problems that had built up over the three decades of reform. The support of workers and peasants can only be assured by giving them education, healthcare, social welfare, minimum housing security, industrial training; and a shift from the current model of polluting and resource-intensive production to greater worker and farner participation in the process of economic change.
Zhang's reform design is bold, involving mutualisation of state-owned assets and widespread share-ownership by citizens, in part to solve the problem of the welfare needs of people on low incomes. He also recommends that the CCP allows open factions, independent trade unions and farmers' associations, and freedom of the press. “Only the Chinese Communist Party can save China; only new democracy can save the Chinese Communist Party”, he writes.
The book provoked a debate among Chinese intellectuals that lasted six months. Zhang Musheng (whose mentor was Chen Yizi, adviser to prime minister Zhao Ziyang before the latter fell following the Tiananmen incident in 1989) continued to insist that a new collective leadership in China cannot allow the current situation to continue, and that people's desire for change is an indisputable reality. Without political change, an authoritarian regime that seeks to postpone reform will risk the fate of the Soviet Union and its satellites (or, closer to home, the Qing dynasty that ended in 1911). Will China's next generation understand the extent of the crisis, and the tide of history that awaits it?