(This interview with veteran Chinawatcher Willy Wo-Lap Lam was published in DNA edition dated October 23, 2010.)
Earlier this week, a secretive meeting of the Chinese Communist Party appointed Vice-president Xi Jinping to a senior military post. To analysts accustomed to reading the tea leaves to understand the power balance within what is arguably one of the world’s most influential and powerful parties, it signalled the passing of the leadership baton in 2012 to a new generation at a time when China is casting a long shadow on global and regional affairs. In an interview to DNA’s Venky Vembu, veteran Sinologist Willy Wo-Lap Lam, who has authored five books on China and its leaders, explains the likely impact of the leadership change within China and for its standing on the world stage. Excerpts:
What do we know of Xi Jinping, who has been ‘anointed’ China’s next leader?
In China, the younger the leadership gets, the more colourless they become. Xi was chosen heir apparent at the 17th Party Congress in 2007 because he was a ‘compromise’ candidate acceptable to most factions: given his revolution-based bloodline, which makes him a ‘princeling’, he’s regarded a ‘safe’ choice who will continue the Communist Party’s domination as the “perennial ruling party”. He’s not a visionary in the mould of Deng Xiaoping, but he’s not called upon to break new ground. He’s just being entrusted the kingdom, as it were, to ensure the party will remain in control of China when he himself passes the baton to the Sixth Generation of leaders.
Is Xi an economic reformer? Ideologically and politically, is he a liberal or a conservative?
On economic reforms, Xi deserves some credit for making Zhejiang a ‘poster province’ for private enterprise when he ran it from 2002 to 1007. He enhanced the profile of some private enterprises that have since become well-known – like automotive giant Geely Motors, which took over Volvo last year. But that apart, his track record in Fujian province, where he spent a much longer time, was lacklustre.
Ideologically, despite one of his speeches last year – in which he riled against
“foreigners” who criticised China – he is no more ‘nationalist’ than the average cadre with a similar background. Certain characteristics are common to Chinese leaders across factions: Xi will espouse a traditionally nationalist line, and continue to push China forward to becoming a superpower.
Xi and (vice-premier) Li Keqiang will be the first Chinese leaders in over 30 years who were not handpicked by Deng Xiaoping; they also lack a strong power base and personal charisma. Will these hamper them?
Between the two of them, Xi actually has a smaller power base. Li worked his way up from the Communist Youth League, which is now the largest faction in the Communist Party and holds many top positions. But Xi has greater influence in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It’s worth watching whether under Xi, PLA Generals will have a bigger say, particularly in foreign policy and security affairs – even beyond what we’ve seen in recent times.
If the PLA’s influence on policy increases, will tensions with China’s maritime and land neighbours, including India, escalate even more?
It’s very possible. But the Chinese leadership already senses it may have overplayed its hand in power projection in recent months. We’re now seeing some ‘damage control’ from them, after the pushback they’ve received over China’s claims in the South China Sea, their support for North Korea in the incident involving the sinking of a South Korean navy ship. The Nobel prize for Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo showed what’s coming for China, so they will beat a temporary retreat.
Premier Wen Jiabao has recently been speaking of political reforms, and there’s speculation of a rift in the Communist Party leadership. What’s happening?
Premier Wen has no power to influence ideological and political factors: that’s the arena of President Hu Jintao and others. My reading is that Wen knows there’s no possibility of political reforms or of his words being translated into action; he’s just trying to secure his legacy, his place in the history books, as someone who spoke up for political reforms…
For sure, Hu Jintao and others, including the propaganda chief, won’t be appreciative of Wen’s posturing. To that extent, there is a division in the leadership. But even Wen won’t put up a fight on this issue.
How will history judge the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao leadership?
Under their watch, China’s international standing has risen tremendously, and it’s become a quasi-superpower. China has also emerged nicely from the Global Financial Crisis. In terms of power projection, they’ve done a good job: they’ve boosted China’s diplomatic clout and its military capacity, even though it’s antagonised a lot of China’s neighbours. The leadership also did well to exploit US weaknesses, particularly under George W. Bush, and filled the vacuum created by US preoccupations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But domestically, their report card looks much worse: they’ve done nothing to redistribute wealth; the gap between the rich and the poor, the East and the West (within China) and between city and village, has widened. Domestic discontent has become more widespread, and we’re even seeing the outward migration of well-educated professionals to the West because they’re fed up with the system.
And where will President Hu stand in history, given his record in office?
The single biggest surprise of the Hu Jintao era has been that on the ideological and political fronts, he has proved to be more conservative than Jiang Zemin. Under Hu’s watch, the leadership has also rolled back reforms; he has proved to be more intolerant of liberal dissent. On that front, the scorecard is mostly negative.
Will his place in party history be assessed negatively?
Perhaps after his departure, but for now his power and position remain secure because the liberal faction the party has been marginalised. Given realpolitik considerations, the minority liberals are in no position to make trouble for him. The only question is whether he will remain chairman of the Central Military Commission even after he steps down as President and party leader. Many leaders, including perhaps Wen Jiabao, don’t want to see Hu Jintao hang on, and that’s his next big challenge. But he can emulate Jiang Zemin, who stayed on as CMC chief.
How will Chinese policy under the Xi-Li leadership be different from the Hu-Wen era?
For the first five years, there will be no change, particularly if, as I believe, Hu Jintao remains CMC chairman for one or two years, and remains the power behind the throne. In any case, Chinese leaders don’t make too much of a policy departure in their first term. That’s more true in Xi Jinping’s case, since he’s not an ‘ideas’ person.
The peaceful, orderly power transition in China, with a leader being ‘groomed’ into the top job three years ahead of time, contrasts with the increasingly rancorous elections in the US. Does the China model of governance come out looking better?
Not really. China is an anomaly, an anachronism; it still follows the Leninist system in many aspects. The stability has been achieved at a huge price – the voice of the majority of the population has been silenced. In terms of political reform, even Vietnam has gone farther than China. To that extent, the ‘China model’ has been oversold.