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China’s Vision 2012

After the anniversary bash,the focus will be on political succession

Written by Nimmi Kurian |
October 5, 2009 1:10:02 am

As it turns 60,longevity will be the one wish China’s Communist Party will fervently hold for itself. The “perennial ruling party”,as it likes to be known as,is preparing itself for a critical transition of power. Its outcome will decide the next line-up of leaders who will govern the country in 2012. This could be a high-risk political mahjong that,not unlike the ancient gambling game,calls for skill,strategy and a good measure of luck. As the political leadership calculates its moves,the question is,will the gamble pay off?

The one constant that could underpin the process is unpredictability. Between now and 2012,China could see some of the most bitterly fought leadership battles. Last month,all attention was on the fourth plenary session of the Party’s Central Committee for indicators as to who Hu Jintao’s likely successor will be. Contrary to expectations,Vice President Xi Jinping failed to be named as vice-chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC). The fact that he is the son of a veteran communist revolutionary hero and former vice-premier was expected to ease his way. Princelings or politicians who hail from the families of high-ranking officials have flourished in China’s power matrix. The 25-member Politburo of the Party,for instance,has seven princelings while the larger Central Committee has 19. Xi’s promotion would have been a strong signal that he is en route to becoming China’s next president. But the stumble just goes to show that China’s war of succession is by no means wrapped up or guaranteed to be smooth.

Many of these pitched political contests are also a reminder that China’s policy-making process is hardly the monolithic world of straight-line decision-making that it is often romanticised to be. Internal political competition is set to get intense as Party elders seek to find a place for themselves or their protégés in the influential Politburo Standing Committee of 2012. Hu’s own embattled political position was evident from his decision to leave the G-8 summit this July and rush back to do fire-fighting. He is trying to fend off charges of being ineffectual in his handling of the security situation in Xinjiang and Tibet. He is also under increasing pressure to remove his protégé,the regional secretary of the Party in Xinjiang,Wang Lequan.

These uncertainties could be an indication that there need not be a complete transfer of power in 2012. It remains to be seen if there will be a repeat of the grudging transfer of power,as was the case from Jiang Zemin to Hu. Of his three posts,Jiang relinquished only the position of the general secretary of the Party to Hu in November 2002 and continued as president till March the next year before passing on the mantle to his successor. Most importantly,Jiang continued as chairman of the CMC till late 2004. The outcomes of many of these battles will also turn on how the rivalry between the Shanghai faction under Jiang and the Communist Youth League faction under Hu shapes up.

These mounting tensions also have the potential to make the political leadership jumpy,abrasive and in no mood to take any chances. This would then also impact state-society relations. The recent crackdown against civil society initiatives could be a signal that greater control in the name of caution might be the formulaic political response to dissent. Societal tolerance levels too appear to be fraying thin with people not in much of a mood to forgive any backsliding on social space. The primary challenge facing the Chinese leadership will be to prevent this conversation from breaking down. This will call for a delicate balancing act between the Party’s anxiety about an erosion of its political supremacy and the compelling need for a robust domain of public autonomy. Much will depend on how China’s leaders make this call.

Some of these leadership battles could also feed into a messy brew of national chauvinism,insecurity and uncertainty. Political signalling aimed at winning friends and influencing hardliners could be very much part of this power play. Where posturing ends and reality begins may,for a while,be hard to determine.

The writer is associate professor,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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