Democracy and Foreign Relations will Test the Next Generation of Mainland Leaders
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
October 20, 2010
On the 19th of this month, during the Fifth Plenary Session of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping was elected Vice President of the Central Military Commission. This move confirmed his status as one of the next generation leaders of the CCP. Less than two weeks apart, both North Korea and Mainland China held elections, confirming successors for Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Neither government has an arrangement western governments would term democratic. But Mainland China has created its own unique system of elections. North Korea on the other hand, is entirely subject to the rule of men.
In North Korea, Kim Jong Eun, who is not even 30, has been made Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission. His sole qualification is that he is the grandson of Kim Il Sung, and the son of Kim Jong Il. Xi Jinping meanwhile, was not made a fifth-generation successor solely because his father Xi Zhongxun was a Communist Party elder. He is a seasoned veteran who has held both party and government positions. He is currently the leader most able to ensure a consensus within the Chinese Communist Party.
More importantly, the system of succession on Mainland China is predictable in nature. For example, the 70 year age limit for membership of the Politburo Standing Committee has become an iron law. The same is true of the system of succession. When Xi Jinping was made Vice President during the 17th Party Congress, everyone expected him to gradually assume control over both the party and the government. Now that he has been made Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission, he is following in the footsteps of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
Because the system is predictable, the political situation should remain stable. This differs from North Korea. Kim Jong Eun may be the designated successor. But no one can predict when Kim Jong Il will die, and what sort of chaos might ensue. Mainland China has freed itself from such a chaotic fate. It may lack democratic institutions. But it has this political model unique to Mainland China.
Xi Jinping has been elected Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission. We cannot ignore another question. Hu Jintao is still Chairman of the Central Military Commission. How long will he retain that position? Will he resign during the 18th Party Congress? Speculation is rife. But most likely he will remain Chairman of the Central Military Commission.
We are only two years away from the 8th Party Congress. Xi Jinping will then assume the role of General Secretary and State President. That much is known. But with only two years of experience in the Central Military Commission, the Vice Chairman will need to "be helped onto his horse, and accompanied part of the way." In the past Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin retained their positions as Chairman of the Central Military Commission. They continued to influence the Central Military Commission. Hu Jintao is not "retiring completely." There is a precedent for this as well.
Nevertheless, after the 18th Party Congress, fifth generation leaders Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will be the successors. They will take over the reigns of government from fourth generation leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. They will face new challenges. Some of these challenges will be domestic, some foreign.
Committment to ongoing reform and liberalization is no longer in question. During the Hu and Wen era, a minority still had doubts. But today the entire party, the entire nation has reached a consensus. They disagree only about execution. Take the "ten two five plan" adopted by the Fifth Plenary Session. Some people still disagree about the future ratio of state-owned enterprises vs. private enterprises.
We must point out that the fifth generation leaders' real challenge comes from freedom and democracy. When Jiang Zemin passed the baton on to Hu Jintao, the only stipulation was "never reverse the verdict on the June 4 Tiananmen Incident." Now however, the situation is much more complicated. Liu Xiaopo has won the Nobel Peace Prize. That is merely one of many indicators. Others include grievances over the gap between rich and poor and uneven regional development. Wen Jiabao's repeated talks on democracy reflect differences in thinking within the party. Also, modern means of mobilization and communication could allow the situation to quickly spin out of control.
No consensus has been reached within the party regarding the development of democracy. The same is true of foreign policy, the currency war, territorial sovereignty, and maritime disputes. Mainland China wants a peaceful rise. But this is no easy task. In the face of so many international challenges directed at Mainland China, should it continue keeping a low profile, or should it stand up and speak out? Should it not be afraid of war, and engage in tit for tat with the world's great powers? The fourth generation leaders did not need to make such decisions. But the fifth generation leaders will not be able to avoid confronting these challenges.
Regarding cross-Strait relations, some are pinning their hopes on Xi Jinping. Xi worked for many years in Fujian. He has many Taiwanese friends. He has feelings for Taiwan. Therefore his Taiwan policy may involve new thinking.
Naturally we hope the new generation of Mainland Chinese leaders will have a good understanding of Taiwan. We hope they will have a first-hand grasp of the situation. But Mainland China's institutionalized system of succession means the institutionalization of decision-making. Major decisions will be made collectively. Taiwan policy will be no exception.
Past CCP leaders had absolute authority. "One word from Mao Zedong was the same as ten thousand." But with successive generations, the authority of individual leaders has diminished. Cross-Strait policy makers on Taiwan have focused their attention on Xi Jinping's personal character and leadership style. Instead, they should attempt to understand the background of the fifth generation leaders as a whole.
In particular, they must not overlook the role President Hu Jintao will play after stepping down. During Hu's final days in power, he will want to leave a legacy. That will be a driving force in cross-Strait relations.