The new team who will be leading China and its 1.3 billion citizens over the next five years were presented to the people on state television on 14 November via a press conference with Xi Jinping, the new general secretary of the Communist Party (CPC). The Standing Committee of the Political Bureau (SCPB), which is both the head of the CPC and the heart of the Chinese state, has been reduced from nine to seven members, its 2002 size. (No women, but that’s the norm.)
This should make things easier for Xi, who will be installed as president next March. The CPC, wary of personal power after the 27-year reign of Mao Zedong, has given itself a collegial structure, in which decisions are made by consensus, a process more comfortable when fewer people are involved. The criteria by which these “seven dragons” were selected are unclear. All we know is that the negotiations were so long and difficult that they delayed the CPC’s 18th national congress by several weeks. Even the political leanings of the newly elected members are mysterious.
Dividing the SCPB’s members into conservatives and reformers is tricky: outgoing president Hu Jintao was seen as a reformer when he was elected 10 years ago. Today he is accused of inaction, and there is even talk of a “lost decade” — true in political terms since there have been few significant democratic reforms (1), but not in economic terms: China has become the world’s second largest economy.
The distinction between “princelings” (children of senior CPC figures and heroes of the revolution) and other candidates, many of whom began their careers in the Communist Youth League, is likewise no guide to the political tendencies of the new SCPB members. We know where they came from, but not where they are going.
Xi, a princeling, cultivates his image with care, unlike his predecessor. His wife, Peng Liyuan, 49, gives him a touch of glamour unusual for a Chinese leader: as a singer in the People’s Liberation Army, she regularly appeared in New Year gala broadcasts on state television and was better known than her husband. A Bloomberg report claims the couple have a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars (2), enough to pay for their only daughter to study at Harvard. State censorship means the Chinese are not supposed to know about this, but the social networking services work well.
Li Keqiang, China’s future prime minister, has spent his entire career as a CPC official and is said to have a spotless record. But his daughter, too, is studying in the US, which means he must have money.
What road will the SCPB take? The way ahead has been mapped out in the resolutions adopted by the 18th congress, mostly drafted by the outgoing team, and the 12th five-year plan, which runs until 2015. We will have to wait until the new team officially takes office next March, and probably a few months longer, to see what changes — if any — are in store, but the challenges make complete inaction unlikely: economic growth is slowing, inequality is growing, ecological damage is worsening, the population is aging faster than it is getting prosperous, trust between the people and the CPC is flagging and relations with neighbouring countries are deteriorating. It would be impossible to do nothing.
Xi clearly wants to win back the support of the workers, without alienating China’s emerging middle class. His first press conference did nothing to upset the established order, but he emphasised that the priority was to make “continued efforts to free up our minds, carry out reform and opening-up … work hard to resolve the difficulties the people face in both work and life, and unwaveringly pursue common prosperity” (3). He went back to Maoist imagery: “Our responsibility is weightier than Mount Tai (4), and our road ahead is a long one.” He also emphasised that the CPC was “dedicated to serving the people” but spoke bluntly of the party facing “many severe challenges … particularly corruption, being divorced from the people,” and of the formalities and bureaucracy imposed by some Party officials. A few days earlier, Hu Jintao had warned that corruption threatened party and state.
Corruption is now found at every level of Chinese society and is beginning to affect everyday life. The new head of the CPC’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection is Wang Qishan, a former deputy prime minister who is familiar with the mechanisms of corruption, having been head of the China Construction Bank in the late 1990s and responsible for economic affairs in the previous government. It is not known if he will use his experience to combat undue accumulation of wealth, corrupt practices and the mixing of business and politics, or if he has been made head of the commission to prevent attacks on the networking and power games between the wheeler-dealers, the princelings and their families and friends.
The proposal to require party leaders to declare their personal fortunes, put forward just before the congress, was not even discussed. It had been intended to counter the revelation in The New York Times that outgoing prime minister Wen Jiabao’s family had a fortune of $2.7bn (5).
It is also not known if the new party leaders have the willpower or the ability to make far-reaching changes in economical and political mechanisms, towards greater transparency and collective decision-making. The congress did not put forward any new proposals for moving closer to “Chinese-style democracy”. Even the experiments in Guangdong, conducted with the assent (more or less) of provincial party secretary Wang Yang — freer elections in the village of Wukan, the election of independent trade union representatives in some big companies — were not discussed (6). Nobody even referred to them. And Wang Yang, who was said to be on his way up, was left out.
The constitution was amended (for the sixth time since its adoption in 1982), but only by the addition of the concept of “scientific outlook on development”, which supposedly indicates an intention to steer the economy towards greater efficiency. Its talk of “innovation” is slightly comic, given the CPC’s fossilised Marxist language and theory. But we should not underestimate the party’s determination to move towards a model for economic growth that takes greater account of the environment. The term ecological civilisation is not a concession to fashion. China, which has become the world’s number one producer of solar panels, now regards the environment — including new materials and renewable energy — as part of its new frontier.
Martine Bulard is deputy editor of Le Monde diplomatique.
(1) There have been two important reforms: one of the labour law, which instituted employment contracts, which had not existed in China until then, and one of property laws. The new justice law, which represents some progress, maintains the subordination of the justice system to the CPC and the Chinese state.
(2) “Xi Jinping Millionaire Relations Reveal Fortunes of Elite”, Bloomberg, 29 June 2012.
(3) The quotations in this paragraph are from Xi’s address at the press conference as reported byChina Daily, Beijing, 16 November 2012.
(4) One of the five sacred mountains of Taoism, situated in Shandong Province.
(5) David Barboza, “Family of Wen Jiabao holds a hidden fortune in China”, The New York Times,26 October 2012.
(6) See Martine Bulard, “Party rivals dispute change”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, September 2012.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.