The next seven days in China will do a lot to shape the next four years in the United States.
In a context arguably at least as important as the just-concluded elections in the United States, the week-long gathering of the Chinese Communist Party will determine what happens in the largest country on the planet.
Are you paying attention?
There’s lots of speculation, as we shall report below, on who’s who in CCP, who’ll be on top, who’ll be ousted, and who’ll control the assertive Chinese military. And, like Kremlinology of the cold war, it’s interesting to look at and make educated guesses about. But China isn’t going anywhere: it’s not falling apart, it’s not on the verge of counterrevolution, and its economy will likely continue to grow at substantial rates. Beijing will become more assertive in Asia, and it will quietly but firmly challenge the traditional American hegemony in that part of the world. Handled right, the US-China relationship can survive and prosper. Handled poorly, especially in areas such the China-Japan rivalry, Taiwan’s inevitable Hong Kongization, and China’s need for unfettered access to oil from Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, it could mean serious conflict.
The 2,270 delegates to the eighteenth party congress will elect a new Central Committee, nearly 400 full members and alternates, and by next week more than half of its members will be freshmen. More than half of the Politburo, the twenty-five members of the top leadership, is retiring, and one, Bo Xilai, has already been kicked out. And the Politburo Standing Committee, with nine members—the ruling body that makes decisions by secrecy-shrouded consensus—will see major changes, possibly shrinking to seven members. Its composition, apparently already decided, and the relative rank of China’s top leaders, will be revealed—at least to the extent that such matters are made public—next Thursday. Seven members of the Standing Committee are retiring.
What’s it all mean? The man who will lead China now is Xi Jinping. We’ll have to wait to see if Xi ushers in modest political reform, a little political reform, or none at all. It’s unclear whether he’s so close to the Chinese military that he’ll allow them more influence, or whether he’ll be able to control the generals effectively. And it’s uncertain whether he’ll move China faster toward market-type reforms that would weaken China’s vast system of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) or whether, as favored by outgoing President Hu Jintao, he will bolster the SOEs.
Last week, in a major speech, Hu Jintao warned that his successors “should steadily enhance the vitality of the state-owned sector of the economy and its capacity to leverage and influence the economy.” And while he supported some reforms, he warned: “We will neither walk on the closed and rigid road, nor will we walk down the evil road of changing (our) flags and banners.” In a blunt section, he said that fighting corruption in China is so vital that failing to do so could collapse the state. “If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state. We must thus make unremitting efforts to combat corruption.”