It is a commonplace that the relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China is the most important single bilateral relationship in the world in the early 21st-century. It is less well known that in autumn 2012, both countries - and not just the former - will be undergoing the vital process of choosing the political leadership to guide them through the next years. It is another commonplace that the outcome in the US matters hugely to the world as well to America itself. China’s global rise means that in 2012, more than ever before, the same is true of the contest in Beijing.
The way the leadership is selected in the two states is an object lesson in political difference. The contrasts of process are highlighted in the very public positioning in which candidates for the American presidency must indulge, and in the incumbent’s attempts to create the most favourable climate for his re-election. The contest between Barack Obama and his Republican opponent will be a popular election full of high drama (with elements of soap-opera too), funded by vast donations, waged on the 24/7 media and tracked by constant polling.
In China, the method of selection resembles more a lengthy game of chess, full of a million understated and opaque tactical decisions, and everything but public. When the members of the new Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership walk out from behind the curtain of the Great Hall of the People in October 2012 (the most probable date) - including the successors of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao as the Chinese equivalent of president and prime minister - the result of that epic, intricate chess-game will finally be known.
The last generation
There is a vast number of studies of political leadership in America. But how do you become a leader in China today? What do you have to do? Who has to like you and support you, and whom do you have to defeat? What are the rules within which you live your life?
The initial thing to note is that Chinese politicians come from a singularly narrow background. They share much of the same experience, inhabit the same ideological universe, and tend to live and work in close proximity to each other. Where western politicians are desperate most of the time to show that they are “one of us”, leaders in China are always and forever “one of them” - members of a tightly defined group, where the golden rule seems to be not to stand out too much.
The eighteenth national congress of the CCP - the seventeenth was held in October 2007 - will be a hugely significant moment for China (see "China's party congress: getting serious", 5 October 2007). The country’s most powerful figures will retire (according to rules the current leadership itself devised) retire. As many as seven of the politburo’s nine-member standing committee will leave the stage, including Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, and Wu Bangguo. It is almost certain that Xi Jinping will succeed Hu as president and party secretary, and that Li Keqiang will succeed Wen as premier; but some key positions in the standing committee are the subject of intense speculation, and the full twenty-five member politburo will be filled with new faces (see "China's coming struggle for power", 14 May 2009).
In seeking to understand this process, the greatest problem is that there are no clear frameworks. In democratic states there are political parties, government and opposition, left and right currents, and open media. In the world’s last major one-party state none of this applies. In recent years, analysts of China have come to employ notions of “populists” and “elitists”, and affiliation to particular factions (such as the “Shanghai group”). But these markers seem less reliable today.
In part this is because China’s current generation of leaders seem more homogenous than any previous one. These leaders have no experience of pre-1949 China; are products of the cultural-revolution era of 1966-76; and are wholly formed by the culture of the Chinese Communist Party. The overall result is an appearance of facelessness and uniformity. The most distinctive feature in its way is one that actually links China to the west: the rule of technocrats is ending, and that of lawyers and political scientists coming to ascendancy.
China’s present crop of leaders differs from its predecessors too in its lack of international experience. This could represent a real problem, for the rising importance and strength of China in all domains mean that the country’s national leadership now also has global significance. The president who leads China from 2012 will be a major international political player, more than Hu Jintao has been. In this respect, the successor generation looks deficient.
Chinese communist leaders, reflecting what their political system has required of them, tend to lack charisma, communication skills and an aptitude for public engagement. They follow the party line in all public appearances, deliver speeches that are rehearsed and formulaic, and remain formal and distant in personal interactions. All this reinforces an impression of an indistinguishable elite, lacking individual personality - faceless even to the domestic populace, and distantly homogeneous to the rest of the world. It is worth noting that only Li Yuanchao and Bo Xilai of the full politburo are fluent in English; that every one of the CCP’s elite body was educated in China; and that none of the sixty-two provincial chiefs (presumably leaders-in-training) has received an academic degree outside of China.
The next time
The leadership that will assume central power in autumn 2012, part of the generation whose education was disrupted by the chaotic years of the cultural revolution, will therefore face intense critical questioning about its capacity to manage the immense problems that will confront it (see Li Datong, "China's leadership: the next generation", 3 October 2007). China’s next decade is going to be very difficult; the huge challenges will include securing legitimacy among an increasingly restless Chinese public, and outlining a vision for China that can have appeal both domestically and in the rest of the world. The nature of the leadership-transition process means that China’s prospective rulers, who are already in the midst of a battle for preferment, give no indication of their plans if they were to emerge from behind the curtain.
What makes it harder for the next Beijing elite is that standing still is not an option. The international demands on China are becoming more pressing and multifaceted, the aspirations of the population higher and (in line with its changing profile) diverse (see Li Datong, "China's unstable stability", 3 August 2010). The Communist Party too, whose survival over the two post-cold-war decades reflects its adaptibility as well as tenacity, must evolve correspondingly.
The overriding need over the next decade is for a reinvigorated leadership that understands its own changing society and is at home in the world. To meet it, the party faces an imminent challenge now: to cast aside its inherent conservatism and start promoting cadres in their 30s and 40s to more senior positions.
This unavoidable test raises a prospect that shadows the great chess-game over 2012. It is far from unlikely that the next leadership will prove to be a lost generation, and that - in 2017 or 2022 - the raft of new, younger, more internationally-minded figures that China and the world alike need will come to the fore. It may seem a long time to wait, by the standards of today’s rapid social changes. But it has to happen, or else all bets are off.