In China, meet the new bosses

Posted: November 20, 2012

By David Shambaugh

With the unveiling of China's new leadership, observers and journalists the world over are contemplating the same question: Will the new group at the top of the Communist Party be able to engineer the reforms needed to tackle the plethora of challenges afflicting virtually every realm of policy and governance in China?

The answer, unfortunately, is no. Those anticipating a return to an ambitious reform agenda - one that will further open the economy, liberalize the polity, reduce social inequities, tackle pervasive corruption, and rectify strains in China's relations with its neighbors, the European Union, and the United States - will be disappointed.

China is in dire need of visionary and strong leadership, the complex challenges facing the nation having grown more acute during Hu Jintao's presidency. But don't expect it from the new team in Beijing.

First, the new leadership is not cohesive. The new Politburo Standing Committee shows many signs of continuing divisions over policy orientations and factional allegiances. While more potential reformers are discernible in the new group, they are likely to continue to be checked by an entrenched bloc of party conservatives and retired elders. Beijing's political gridlock is similar to Washington's, and Xi Jinping's mandate for change is about as narrow as President Obama's. In short, a "team of rivals" is not likely to produce forward movement in the Chinese Politburo.

This lack of consensus at the top has been the case for at least five years. All that the Chinese party-state has shown itself capable of is a combination of muddling through, hollow policy slogans, and money thrown at problem-plagued sectors. But China's key challenges - social inequity, environmental damage, educational system rigidity, lack of innovation, depressed consumption, demographics, labor mobility, lack of transparency and accountability, ineffective rule of law, poor provision of public goods, and weak "soft power" abroad - are qualitative issues that do not lend themselves to state investment.

Another obstacle is institutional. While leaders matter in the Chinese system, institutional interests count for far more. China may not be a democracy, but it has strong bureaucratic and interest-group politics. For the past five years, reform has been blunted by the "Iron Quadrangle": mammoth state-owned enterprises, the internal security apparatus, the military, and the conservative wing of the Communist Party.

This is the political landscape that Xi and the new leadership inherit. For his part, Xi, like Hu, remains a cipher: We do not know whether he is a closet reformer, a real reformer, or another apparatchik-technocrat. His background suggests the last.

At least he smiles and has a warmer public persona than the wooden Hu. Nonetheless, Xi & Co. will be trapped by the powerful vested interests that strangled the would-be reforms of Hu's more progressive advisers and the acolytes of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

To break the Iron Quadrangle and launch much-needed reforms will require enormous vision and willpower on Xi's part, an investment of huge institutional resources to buy them off, and time. It will be at least two years before Xi can consolidate his power and be in a position to tackle the powerful vested interests that run China. And it is not clear that he is even so inclined.

Expect more of the same for China: authoritarian stagnation and gridlock at home; increased abrasiveness abroad.

David Shambaugh is a professor and the director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University. He wrote this for the Washington Post.

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