China’s next elite: 2012 and beyond

Published on openDemocracy, by  Kerry Brown and Loh Su-hsing, 16 August 2010.

The transition to a new Chinese leadership has already begun. The domestic and international demands made of it will be greater than ever. But the character of the emerging generation will severely constrain its ability to cope, say Kerry Brown & Loh Su-hsing … //

… Chinese communist leaders, reflecting what their political system has required of them, tend to lack charisma, communication skills and an aptitude for public engagement. They follow the party line  in all public appearances, deliver speeches that are rehearsed and formulaic, and remain formal and distant in personal interactions. 

All this reinforces an impression of an indistinguishable elite, lacking individual personality – faceless even to the domestic populace, and distantly homogeneous to the rest of the world. It is worth noting that only Li Yuanchao and Bo Xilai  of the full politburo are fluent in English; that every one of the CCP’s elite body was educated in China; and that none of the sixty-two provincial chiefs (presumably leaders-in-training) has received an academic degree outside of China.

The next time:

The leadership that will assume central power in autumn 2012, part of the generation whose education was disrupted by the chaotic years of the cultural revolution, will therefore face intense critical questioning about its capacity to manage the immense problems that will confront it (see Li Datong, “China’s leadership: the next generation”, 3 October 2007). China’s next decade is going to be very difficult; the huge challenges will include securing legitimacy among an increasingly restless Chinese public, and outlining a vision for China that can have appeal both domestically and in the rest of the world. The nature of the leadership-transition process means that China’s prospective rulers, who are already in the midst of a battle for preferment, give no indication of their plans if they were to emerge from behind the curtain.

What makes it harder for the next Beijing elite is that standing still is not an option. The international demands on China are becoming more pressing and multifaceted, the aspirations of the population higher and (in line with its changing profile) diverse (see Li Datong, “China’s unstable stability”, 3 August 2010). The Communist Party too, whose survival over the two post-cold-war decades reflects its adaptibility as well as tenacity, must evolve correspondingly.

The overriding need over the next decade is for a reinvigorated leadership that understands its own changing society and is at home in the world. To meet it, the party faces an imminent challenge now: to cast aside its inherent conservatism and start promoting cadres in their 30s and 40s to more senior positions.

This unavoidable test raises a prospect that shadows the great chess-game over 2012. It is far from unlikely that the next leadership will prove to be a lost generation, and that – in 2017 or 2022 – the raft of new, younger, more internationally-minded figures that China and the world alike need will come to the fore. It may seem a long time to wait, by the standards of today’s rapid social changes. But it has to happen, or else all bets are off. (full text).

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