Some China watchers seem to be engaged in a Chinese variant of “Where is Waldo?” that we might call “Where is China’s Gorbachev?”. But unlike Waldo, whom you can find if you look hard enough, it seems unlikely a Chinese Gorbachev exists, at least anywhere near the top echelons of China’s leadership. While undoubtedly there are leadership splits over some issues, reports about thwarted reform efforts led by Wen Jiabao appear misguided.
I suggest anyone interested this topic read these two essays from the latest issue of the China Leadership Monitor. Alice Miller, in Splits In The Politburo Leadership(PDF)?, and Joseph Fewsmith, in Political Reform Was Never On The Agenda (PDF), argue that much of the conventional “wisdom” on the current state of elite Chinese politics has been wrong.
Dr. Miller was my advisor at Johns Hopkins SAIS, and I consider her to be among the foremost analysts of Chinese politics. Not everyone agrees, and a prominent, younger professor of Chinese politics recently dismissed the Fewsmith and Miller analyses to me as “old-school Kreminlology”.
Whatever Wen Jiabao’s intention, his speech in Shenzhen resonated with those in China and abroad who hoped that political reform would be back on the government’s agenda, perhaps at the Fifth Plenum in October. Perhaps ironically, the response to Wen’s speech appears to have been driven by the increasingly dismal prospects for significant political reform as nationalistic voices find satisfaction with the “China model,” particularly in contrast to the economic problems of the West. This is a mood that finds little need to copy the West, particularly in political terms. In any event, it seems clear that political reform was never on the agenda of the Fifth Plenum, except in the broad sense that continued economic reform would inevitably require political changes, so much of the media discussion that took place in the six weeks following Wen’s remarks was simply disconnected from what was going on in China. Whatever Wen intended, and whatever the import of the “Zheng Qingyuan” articles, it is clear that China’s leadership has outlined a trajectory of modest inner-party democracy that in no way loosens the control of the Party, and there is no reason to think that this course will change in the immediate future.
…insistent remarks on the need for “democracy” by Wen Jiabao—in Shenzhen in August and again in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria while attending the United Nations session in New York City in September—have been read as contrasting starkly with tepid remarks by Hu Jintao on political reform (also made in Shenzhen), and so as indicating a fundamental split on the future of reform between the premier and the CCP’s top leader, and perhaps its broader Politburo leadership as well. Also, travels by internal security chief and Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang have been seen as indicating efforts of a conservative bloc in the party leadership from the security, military, and propaganda sectors to assert itself in PRC foreign policy, an interpretation that may aid in explaining the uneven but persistent evidence of hard-line trends in that arena over the past year and a half. Finally, the appointment of Xi Jinping to the post of vice chairman of the party Central Military Commission (CMC) at the 17th Central Committee’s Fifth Plenum in October, a year after the unexpected failure of the Fourth Plenum to do so, has been seen as the denouement of a prolonged and apparently failed attempt by party General Secretary Hu Jintao to derail Xi’s succession of him as China’s paramount leader in favor of Hu’s crony Vice Premier Li Keqiang.
These are the most plausible interpretations of the recent events described above, or at least the most plausible from among those interpretations that posit leadership conflict in explaining the events and their significance. In one case, however—that of Xi Jinping’s promotion to the CMC—available evidence is inconclusive. And in the other two cases, inferences of leadership conflict are not supported by available evidence…
These results do not demonstrate that conflict over power and policy does not exist in China’s leadership. This author believes on first principles—namely, that Chinese leaders are human and so as ambitious, competitive, and differing in outlook and policy preferences as politicians everywhere else—that leadership splits do indeed exist among China’s top leaders. In a context in which the interests of the various contending constituencies in China’s political order have multiplied and become increasingly complex as China’s wealth and power have grown, in which the stakes of leadership decisions have correspondingly increased, and as China’s leaders confront such episodic stresses as the world economic downturn since 2008, the potential for splits among China’s leaders can only have grown.
Nevertheless, China’s leadership under Hu Jintao has functioned as an oligarchic collective that appears to make decisions on the basis of consensus. The policy processes and rules by which the Hu leadership operates were implanted by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s, effectively the restoration of an effort to establish collective leadership procedures in the mid-1950s that was derailed thereafter by Mao’s growing antagonism toward his veteran colleagues. The processes and rules evolved under Jiang Zemin’s leadership in the 1990s, and have taken stronger hold under Hu’s leadership in the past decade. They were implanted by Deng and his colleagues in part to inhibit a return to the intense free-for-all factional conflicts that characterized the last two decades of Mao Zedong’s leadership and in part to facilitate governance of a rapidly modernizing country. The necessity of such a collective leadership politics of consensus was reinforced as a lesson in 1989, when months of leadership splits over economic policy led to a paralysis among the leadership in its ability to deal with the demonstrations as they emerged in Tiananmen Square.
As a consequence, leadership differences over power and policy have since been fought out behind a rigorously sustained public façade of leadership unity and discipline. In that context, the notion that the party’s third-ranking leader, Wen Jiabao, would air personal preferences for “Western-style democracy” in opposition to the prevailing views of the rest of the Chinese leadership in an interview abroad with a foreign journalist ought to seem farfetched, given the highly negative precedent set by then party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang breaking party discipline in comparable fashion during the 1989 Tiananmen crisis. Similarly, the public intrusion of the party’s top internal security leader into foreign relations processes ought to invite a measure of skepticism in a context of two decades of leadership discipline in that arena.
The upshot is, therefore, that while splits certainly exist among China’s leaders today, they work themselves out in a significantly different political setting. And so the premises and methods used to identify them in the good old days of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath—when “left” was left and “sham left” was really “ultraright”—must evolve in step.
The essays might not be as entertaining as misguided and facile articles like Russell Leigh Moses’ Chinese Communist Party Prepares for Showdown Over Political Reform or China’s Premier Pushing the Envelope Again?, but I encourage you to read the Miller and Fewsmith essays if you want expert analysis on Chinese politics.