On Xi Jinping, China, and its Communist Party

Ian Johnson, a former Beijing bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, reviews Richard McGregor's The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers and other books about China's Communist Party. Some notes from the article:

The key question [at the Chinese Communist Party's annual plenum this fall] will be if the man tapped to be China’s next leader, Xi Jinping, will get a seat on the Party’s Central Military Commission. Joining this body, which has responsibility for all of China’s armed forces, is one of a series of steps that is supposed to culminate in Xi replacing the current top leader, Hu Jintao, when his second five-year term as president ends in two years.
Some thought that Xi was to join the military commission last year, but he didn’t, and now observers are divided on what that meant—is Xi no longer rising in the Party hierarchy or was that snub unimportant? :And what if he doesn’t join the commission at this plenum—is his star falling further, or has the Party changed the rules of succession, with a seat on the commission not as important as had been assumed?

… the [Communist] Party [of China] has 78 million members—almost as many as the entire population of Germany. In theory, members vote to select their representatives in the system, culminating in the nine-man Standing Committee of the Party’s Political Bureau, or Politburo. In fact, bodies higher up in the system usually present lower-ranking members with preapproved slates of candidates. That means the system is self-selecting, with leaders trying to promote people loyal to them so they can advance their own agendas. The result is that the Party consists of factions grouped around leaders, and divisions in the Party have often been deep and venomous.

See, for example, China's New Rulers by Andrew J. Nathan and Bruce Gilley for a look at the maneuvering surrounding the 2002–2004 change of power from Jiang to Hu, or the recent autobiography by former Party leader Zhao Ziyang, Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang (Simon and Schuster, 2010). The new heir apparent, Xi, may be the victim of such a split: he is not Hu's chosen successor as president but the choice of Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Some Pekingologists speculate that Hu is purposefully weakening Xi by denying him a place on the military commission; this way, Hu could maintain his influence when he retires.

McGregor … says … [the Communist] Party’s Organization Department is so expansive that it would be like one group in Washington naming the members of the Supreme Court, all the members of the Cabinet, the editors of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, the heads of all major think tanks, and the CEOs of major companies like General Electric, Exxon-Mobil, and Wal-Mart. These analogies, while imperfect, help make this an accessible introduction to the Party’s power in today’s China.

From the Party’s perspective it pulled off a surprising feat in 2002 by organizing an orderly transfer of power that wasn’t driven by a crisis like Tiananmen or the Cultural Revolution. Unless a completely unforeseen series of events takes place in the next two years, it is likely to do the same in 2012, with the odds favoring Xi Jinping becoming China’s next leader. This shows that the Party has figured out the sort of institutional stability that largely eluded its counterparts in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.

Early on in its reign, the Party pushed get-rich-quick schemes like the Great Leap Forward that resulted in national catastrophe. These utopian plans are gone but more than a faint echo remains in the desire of Chinese companies to shortcut the painstaking process of creating international brands by buying faltering names.

…another problem: the lack of creative and intellectually ambitious students. After Tiananmen, the government channeled huge sums into better dorms for students, housing for teachers, labs for scientists, and junkets for administrators. This satiated material demands and attracted foreign universities hoping to set up programs in China. But it can hardly be a coincidence that this system has never produced a Nobel Prize winner; even among China’s elite universities, the academic level resembles that of an average US land-grant university, with most no better than a mediocre community college. 

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