‘Stability,’ ‘political and economic reform’ and ‘improvement in social justice’ remained issues of major concern during the session of China’s National Political Council (CNPC) held from 5-14 March 2012. Without these, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao maintained, China could yet again witness a debacle similar to that of the Cultural Revolution. Yet, proponents of democracy argue that the comments made by Wen Jiabao in the closing session of the NPC are a mere distraction and Chinese leaders show no clear intent towards reforms. Critics lamented that the CCP has set a world record by ‘passing all bills tabled in the 63 years of its working session’ which shows its complete disregard of the need for political (implicitly democratic) reform. But is democratic reform really on the Chinese agenda?
Hardly so. At a time when international criticism is at an all time high pillorying China for not implementing democratic reforms despite lip-service by its leaders, the CCP is hard pressed to maintain the symbolism of a united leadership. The concerns highlighted during the session also suggest that historical precedent remains deeply embedded in the CCP’s psyche as they witness transition from one leadership to another. Lin Biao and Liu Shaoqi both failed (and paid with their lives) for trying to succeed Mao; the leadership then being seized by the gang of four. Neither did Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang succeed Deng Xiaoping. The fourth generation leader Hu Jintao was also not chosen by the predecessor Jiang Zemin. The lessons drawn from these instances drive the current attempted smooth transition.
In the current leadership struggle two political factions are apparent within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): a ‘populist faction’ of the Chinese Communist Youth League headed by Hu Jintao - seeking strong leadership, strong government and redistribution of wealth, and on the other hand - an ‘elitist faction’ led by former president Jiang Zemin or more famously ‘the Shanghai clique’ asking for maintenance of Chinese economic power driven by exports and centered around the coast, largely implying control over resources within a small coterie of CCP members. With an almost certain candidature for the President (Xi Jinping, one of the princelings/tai zi dang or the elitist faction) and Vice-president (Li Keqiang, though some speculate Wang Qishan as his competitor), the rest of the seven seats on the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) have now become matter of heightened speculation and debate. The provincial party chiefs from Guangdong Province, Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing and Inner Mongolia will be some likely contenders.
However, the purported smooth transition blueprint seems to be coming under severe strain. The fragility of the CCP’s hold on power was exposed during the NPC session where almost 700, 000 security guards were deputed to safeguard the 5000 attendees. The attempted defection by Bo Xilai’s (Party Secretary of Chongqing) deputy to the US has raised concerns over conspiracies being hacked by the pro-reform sections of the CCP to oust the other faction. The factionalization within the Party also seems to have been extended to the PLA as reports surfaced suggesting a possible military coup in support of Bo Xilai. Under such circumstances, maintaining the unity within the CCP remains their top most priority which also explains the unprecedented opportunity given to Bo to explain himself before the Party.
The current political transition shows a backward momentum of Chinese politics as these are more indicative of feudalization of their structures rather than an advance towards democratization. Though, one could argue that linearity of progress need not necessarily be judged by an endorsement of democracy by any country, but the momentum of Chinese politics with factionalization of the PLA and the Party does not bid well for a state which strives to posit a unitary political image.
With or without reform, many international observers see today’s CCP as the “world’s most successful failure” (Yang Chengjun); and yet the Party continues to fascinate political leaderships across the world by the mere strength of its delivery, irrespective of its authoritarian nature.
Recent political developments suggest that the Chinese state is under significant internal and external pressure to maintain a semblance of unanimity. There is a high likelihood that this will propel it to resort to stricter controls over the population and the use of brute force cannot be ruled out.
Internal reports from China suggest that the candidatures are being judged on the basis of their pliability with the US leadership, which points to the fact that Sino-US relations will be accorded top-priority in China’s political set up. As for India and its other South Asian neighbours, the internal squabble in China provides a much needed distraction and respite on issues like the South China Sea and the Sino-Indian border, and an opportunity which these countries should utilize, to put it in the Chinese verbiage - ‘build capacities,’ even though for a short while.