The three laws of Chinese politics

China is moving towards a major leadership transition in 2012. A process that looks opaque is governed by clear if unwritten rules, says Kerry Brown.
Kerry Brown
4 October 2011

A major leadership transition in China is expected a year from now. As I write, things are happening in Beijing - deals being started, in progress, going wrong - which we are likely to learn of only a long time in the future (and perhaps not even then). The current power-play will help decide the identity of the eleven or so real contenders for the (probable) seven available positions on the all-important standing committee of the politburo, the summit of power in the contemporary People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Chinese politics often seem opaque and mysterious - “byzantine” in the all-purpose formula. It is helpful then to recall that there are several ground-rules. Here are three that might shed light on the leadership process.

How it works

The first rule of contemporary Chinese politics relates to the nature of the Chinese system, which is true to its Soviet roots in the sense of being rationalist. It follows procedures based on the notion of human perfectibility and logicalness. This is its greatest strength, because it gives everything the veneer of planning and control; but also its greatest weakness, because humans can hardly ever live up to what the system expects of them.

In practice this means that there will be a reason behind each person’s final arrival on the standing committee. In Chinese politics there is always a cause-and-effect explanation, connected usually to the dense networks and links between people, factions, groups, and social worlds.

True, even the keenest observer of Chinese politics can only imperfectly understand the ups and downs. But the first rule is that if things look odd, we just haven’t been able to look far enough under the table to work them out; if we could, everything would make perfect sense.

The second rule follows from these networks and links, and how complicated are the calculations over who gets lifted up and who loses out. This system is less about individuals than about the extended circles of patronage, vested interest and family around them. This makes preferment also a matter of appealing to the interests of as wide a constituency as possible; and that involves material, and sometimes financial, inducements.

It’s not that getting onto the standing committee is a function of being able to spend or promise as many billions of renminbi as candidates in the United States can pledge dollars. But it is about whose ascent will bring gain to many others, and what sort of worlds - state-owned businesses, military top brass, political elites, even academic and cultural centres - these might be from.

A system where the highest official in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gets - on paper at least - only a few hundred dollars a month, real transparency is a daydream. In crude terms, elevation to the politburo’s standing committee might not gain the winning candidate  immediate riches - but it will bring their wide networks into a hitherto almost unimaginable world of wealth. For these, a link with the winners of the leadership transition is akin to a connection within a multi-trillion-dollar business. The second rule of contemporary Chinese politics, therefore, is to follow the money.

The third rule is about the political hierarchy at the very top level. Most of the excited speculation concerns who will succeed Hu Jintao as party secretary or Wen Jiabao as premier; very little focuses on the second position in the standing-committee order. Yet the occupant of this slot - currently the largely unknown Wu Bangguo - has the critical role of responsibility for China’s nominal parliament, the national people’s congress (NPC).

If a reformist lands this position in late 2012, then the moment he walks out from behind the curtain we will know whether this is a leadership prepared, at some point, to make the congress genuinely more representative; and if the answer is yes, we will know that the era of socio-political change has at last arrived. The third rule of modern Chinese politics, therefore, is: never forget number two!

The fourth rule

It is unusual to reduce Chinese politics to these basic precepts. But the approach is also one way to access the reality of an unusual system: one that seems to have little to do with the individual personalities or qualities of those involved.

The upper echelons of the PRC are now full of competent administrators with a wide range of skills that, however, they hardly ever need to demonstrate in public. The system’s key requirement is elsewhere: to align the immense configuration of economic, political and power interests that it embodies to ensure its stability for (at least) the next five years.

The stakes are high. The rewards of power in modern China are huge, almost beyond imagining - but the costs of failure are cataclysmic. This is where the weight really does fall on individuals: for if you mess up, your career - and its benefit for those in your universe -  comes to a shuddering halt.

The great exception here was Deng Xiaoping, who returned from political oblivion to become architect of the reform process that shaped the country’s three decades of transformation. It will not happen again, and all involved in the leadership transition know it. Here is the fourth unwritten rule of modern Chinese politics: there are no second acts.

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