China’s Leadership Transition: Implications for Cross-Strait and U.S.-China Relations

I have been asked to accept a Mission Impossible, offering a forecast of how a leadership transition that is only in its early stages will affect two very complicated sets of relationships, the one between the two sides of the Strait and the other between the United States and China. There are many bright individuals in the audience who could perform this Mission Impossible better than I, and I look forward to their showing me up in the discussion period. But since someone has to be the lightning rod, it might as well be me.

Let me offer up front a summary of my conclusions. First of all, there are a number of sound reasons why it is impossible to know at this early date whether this leadership transition will have any impact on the PRC?s Taiwan policy or its US policy. Second, based on admittedly paltry or negative evidence, there is little sign that the rising generation of leaders in China views the United States or Taiwan in a less ambivalent or more favorable or more hostile way than their predecessors. Third, the issues at the heart of both relationships have more to do with Beijing?s national goals and interests and less to do with the policy inclinations of individual leaders. For all these reasons therefore, the prospects for continuity are higher than they are for change.

Perhaps these conclusions reflect something about the sociology of China-watching. I began my professional career just as the Mao period was ending and the Deng era was beginning. For the next twenty-five years I was among those who on a fairly regular basis expressed the probably naïve hope that the next generation of Chinese leaders would be significantly better than the current one, particularly on issues like political reform and Taiwan. I?m not suggesting there has been no improvement over the last fifteen or twenty years, for there has. Yet a couple of disappointments has made me more cautious in middle age.

The Default Stance of Governements

I suppose that if we were to pose to Chinese officials the question at the heart of my talk—whether leadership change will lead to policy change—their answer would be, ?Of course not.? China?s policies, they would likely assert, are based on a principled assessment of China?s interest and are not a function of the replacement of one set of leaders by another.

This response would not be unique to Beijing. Most governments, in fact, emphasize the constancy of policy even when change is occurring. The only exception is in democratic systems when the party out of power criticizes the policies of the party in power as a means to attract public support. Even when the opposition party wins and then tries to implement its campaign promises, the permanent government, which has the strongest interest in policy consistency, and other political forces seek to steer policy back to what it was before. We can see this phenomenon with respect to China policy in the United States in the elections of 1992 and 2000.

When I mention governments? preference to emphasize consistency, I draw in part on personal experience. I was the person that the Clinton Administration sent to Taiwan after Jiang Zemin?s 1997 visit to the United States and President Clinton?s visit to the PRC in 1998 to reassure our friends on the island. On both occasions, my lead-off talking point was that U.S. policy had not changed. Everything else I said was designed to support that basic assertion. I was comfortable doing so because I happened to believe what I had been instructed to say. And in the case of the 1998 episode, Lee Teng-hui himself publicly agreed with Washington?s view. Still, even if there had been a more-than-marginal change, Washington?s default position would have been to downplay it if at all possible.

The simple point here is that we should not expect the Chinese government to associate a change in policy with the arrival of a new leadership team. That is not what governments tend to do.

The New Line-up

We have only just learned, as a result of the first plenum of the 16th Party Congress, who will fill the top positions the government, party, and military hierarchies. It is therefore quite early to speculate on implications. We know that Hu Jintao is now General Secretary of the Communist Party. We know that Hu Jintao will be most likely be selected as State President next March and Wen Jiabao as Premier. We also know that Jiang Zemin will continue as chairman of the Central Military Commission, and that his proteges have a majority on the Politburo and its Standing Committee. The most important of those proteges for our purposes is probably Zeng Qinghong.

But there are a number of things we do not know. First of all, it is unclear how long Jiang will remain as CMC chairman (five months, two years, or five years) and what difference it will make to the policy process. Second, we do not know who will be filling other key positions. Who, for example, will fill the vice-premiership responsible for external affairs. The presumption is that Qian Qichen, who has played a key role in U.S. and Taiwan policy for a decade, will step down. But we don?t know who will replace him; Dai Bingguo, head of the CCP International Liaison Department is one rumored possibility and Wu Yi is another. There is speculation that Tang Jiaxuan will no longer be foreign minister and Deputy Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing will take his place. If Chi Haotian is no longer defense minister, who will replace him? There has been less discussion of three other positions that are arguably more important: the chairmanships of the Leader Small Groups on National Security, Foreign Affairs, and Taiwan. In recent years, Jiang Zemin has headed all of these bodies, which are the points in the system where the senior leaders who make policy and the line agency officials who implement it come together.

It will be easier to at least assess the possibility of policy change concerning the United States and Taiwan when more of these positions are filled. Even so, we must recall that a leadership transition in China is a more seamless and gradual process than in the United States. Even if Hu Jintao is paramount leader in terms of his offices, and even if he inclined to make new departures in PRC policy (which only he knows for sure), it may take him time to accumulate the power to do so.

My personal working hypothesis has been that the more Jiang retains influence in the wake of the 16th Party Congress ? by retaining positions and by placing proteges, the greater the likelihood of policy continuity along the lines that Deng Xiaoping laid down. That is probably satisfactory for U.S.-China relations and unfortunate regarding Taiwan.

It has been my personal view that, concerning the United States, Jiang, along with Qian Qichen, understands America?s dominant position in the world today and China?s economic and technological dependence on the United States. He believes that cooperation with a strong United States in a variety of foreign policy issues is in China?s interests while it gradually builds up its economic and military power and its regional political influence. He understands that challenging the United States would be reckless, and has been quite skillful, in my opinion, in managing those who propose a challenge. When Chinese public opinion responds in a strong, nationalistic vein to incidents like the Belgrade bombing and the EP-3 accident, Jiang has not sought to suppress opposition to his moderate policies. Rather he has allowed a certain amount of venting and then brought those who would challenge the United States back to a more sensible position.

Moreover, we are now in a period when the two countries are expanding the range of their foreign-policy cooperation. Whether it is on North Korea, counter-terrorism, South Asia, or Iraq, Beijing and Washington see shared interests and a real value in pursuing those interests by working together. Jiang has been the architect and, so far, the beneficiary of that approach.

On Taiwan policy, I agree with those who say that China?s approach over the last year or two has been more moderate and skillful than before, in part because of a calculation that growing economic interaction puts time on Beijing?s side and in part because of the firmness of the Bush Administration. And Jiang has displayed that same ability to manage domestic criticism of his Taiwan policy that he has shown concerning the United States. On the other hand, Beijing has consistently misread Taiwan?s position on fundamental issues, in effect regarding substantive opposition to one-country, two-systems as tantamount to the pursuit of Taiwan independence (more on that later). And Beijing continues to accumulate military power in order to some day have the capacity, if necessary, to coerce Taiwan into submission. What is needed to deal with this increasingly dangerous situation, I think, is less posturing and a resumption of some kind of dialogue, less one-country, two-systems and more new thinking.

What Does the Fourth Generation Think?

Sooner or later, the influence of Jiang Zemin and Qian Qichen will wane. As or when that happens, what can we anticipate of Chinese policy on the United States and Taiwan?. Here we are handicapped by the skill of Hu Jintao and other key figures in the fourth generation in masking their policy preferences while they have waited to assume leadership positions and then accumulate power. Having learned well the negative examples of Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, Hu Yaobang, and Zhao Ziyang, they leave us clueless—and most Chinese clueless as well, I suspect—about how they would handle these key issues of China?s external policy.

Those who have studied the fourth generation of Chinese leaders—most notably Cheng Li—have offered some clues and guesses about what to expect from them. Li tells us that Cultural Revolution was the defining political experience for the fourth generation, which left them ideologically less dogmatic, intellectually more sophisticated, more down-to-earth and politically capable than their predecessors. Most of the members of the fourth generation have received higher education, including post-graduate studies, and are concentrated in the fields of engineering and natural sciences, with some economists and lawyers. They complete the transition, begun in the third generation, from veterans of the revolution to a leadership of technocrats, people whom Li defines as possessing expertise, practical experience, and leadership positions. They are, to be sure as elitist as the revolutionary generation, but their right to rule has a very different basis.

Concerning policy predilections, Li suggests that individuals in the fourth generation tend to be techno-nationalists, people who want to build the state and national power through technology. They are probably more aware of the need for political reforms than their predecessors, but they want to bring about political change in a managed and controlled way. Yet this mentality is balanced somewhat by an awareness of the imperatives of a globalized economy.

Li observes that just because fourth generation leaders have had more exposure to the West, they are not necessarily pro-Western. The string on negative events in U.S.-China relations has left them ?cynical about the moral superiority of the West, resentful of Western arrogance, and doubtful about the total adoption of a Western economic and political system. Yet, even in the face of a crisis such as the tragic incident in Belgrade, they understand the need for cooperation instead of confrontation…Their policies toward the United States will be firm but not aggressive.? Concerning Taiwan, Li suggests, ?Taiwan?s growing demand for independence and the mainland?s uncompromising sovereignty claim on the island have placed fourth generation leaders in a very difficult situation. Any major policy mistake from either side of the Taiwan Strait may profoundly jeopardize the course of China?s modernization.?

I would be a more cautious than Li in imputing policy views to fourth generation leaders, for the simple reason that we really don?t know. If these judgments are correct, however, they portend basic policy continuity concerning both the United States and Taiwan, with all the risks and opportunities that continuity entails. Caution concerning political reform means that one of the more neuralgic issues in U.S.-China relations—human rights—is unlikely to go away. And an elitist outlook may impede a proper appreciation of the very populist consciousness that shapes Taiwan?s approach to cross-Strait relations.

In preparing for this speech, I did a little analytic exercise that demonstrates both that fourth generation leaders may have different views than their elders and that there are too many factors at work to say. The exercise was to compare the speech that Qian Qichen gave on the sixth anniversary of Jiang Zemin?s 1995 ?eight-points? speech in January 2000, before Zhou Mingwei became deputy director of the Taiwan Affairs Office, with the speeches Qian gave the two succeeding years. Zhou Mingwei is certainly a member of fourth leadership generation, if not the fifth, and he has made a positive impression on many who have met and talked with him. If he had new ideas about the Taiwan Strait issue, they might show up in the speeches that Qian gave he moved to Beijing.

Now the last thing you need after a hearty lunch is a detailed textual analysis of these three speeches, so I won?t inflict one upon you. Suffice it to say, there are interesting new elements in the two latter addresses. The 2001 speech was the first time that Qian offered the formulation that Taiwan and the Mainland both belonged to one China. It expressed sympathy for ?the sufferings of the Taiwan compatriots in having endured a long period of colonial rule and despotic oppression, and understanding of ?the strong aspirations of the Taiwan compatriots to be masters in their own house.? The 2002 speech expanded on that latter point and welcomed DPP members who were not ?stubborn Taiwan independence elements? to visit China as long as they used an appropriate status. Gone are the harsh warnings of the 2000 speech that ?Taiwan independence can only mean war.?

Do the more moderate formulations of the latter speeches reflect the influence of a member of a new leadership generation? I confess that it is very hard to say. On the one hand, I think it?s a good sign that PRC officials claim to have a better understanding of Taiwan ways of thinking. That has been missing for a long time. On the other hand, there is no way of knowing whether the articulation of new formulations and Zhou Mingwei?s presence in Beijing is more than a coincidence. One can explain these new ways of talking by pointing to changes in the larger situation that might have led Beijing to dictate greater rhetorical moderation: Chen Shui-bian?s pledge not to take certain steps; the emergence of forces in Taiwan could constrain and undermine him; and the Taiwan recession. From Taiwan perspective, these formulations are less significant than they seem on first glance. And the fundamental PRC policy has not changed in this series of statements. So it?s next to impossible difficult to ascribe any special influence to Vice-Minister Zhou and so a different outlook on the part of fourth generation leaders. And the fact that Zhou did not get a seat on the Central Committee may indicate that he has less influence than people thought.

Unavoidable Realities

I have offered two reasons why we are likely see continuity in PRC policy towards Taiwan and the United States in the wake of the leadership transition. First, the leaders of the 1990s are likely to maintain some level of influence. Second, we have no real evidence that the new generation of leaders think any differently than the current one.

The third reason that continuity is likely, and that is the nature of the issues themselves. US-China relations is a mix of cooperation, conflict and stalemate that is defined less by the views of leaders than by the national interests and domestic politics of the two countries. Cross-Strait relations have settled into a political stalemate that is mainly of China?s making, a stalemate that economic interaction and military build-ups will affect only in the medium and long term. Neither relationship is amenable to quick or easy fixes. And, parenthetically, we know that these two trains are not running on unconnected tracks. Even if Hu Jintao had really new ideas on either set of relationships, old frameworks would likely constrain him from promoting them.

Regarding U.S.-China relations, although the two countries share interests on a variety of foreign-policy issues and seek maximize cooperation on them, and although economic relations are basically complementary, there remains a rather sharp difference of view on other issues. Human rights is one of those issues and China?s military build-up is another, and there are constituencies in the United States for which China?s behavior in these areas is all that matters. There are constituencies in China for whom American criticism on human rights and military modernization are telling evidence of a fundamental hostility towards their country?s return to greatness. The lack of public support in each country for the relationship is real. It is fed by some mutual misperceptions, but it is also symptomatic of a real conflict over policies. It is hard to see the United States giving up its concern about the Beijing?s internal arrangements or about the challenge it may some day pose in East Asia. If the fourth generation is in favor of controlled political reform, that offers some cause for hope, but the details and pacing will be important. Given the political dynamics behind China?s military build-up and the desire to increase capabilities that might be used against Taiwan, it is hard to see China stopping the acquisition of advanced systems. These issues can be managed and balanced with more positive elements, but they do impose real limits on what is possible.

Regarding cross-Strait relations, there are different views on the reason for the political stalemate. My own view is that Beijing has over a long period of time misunderstood what Taipei wants. As I suggested before, China has interpreted Taipei?s resistance to a one-country, two-systems approach, including its effort to widen its international space, as an effort to permanently separate Taiwan from China. To be sure, there are some in Taiwan who seek that result, but I don?t believe that is what Lee Teng-hui sought during his presidency and what Chen Shui-bian seeks now. They have focused on a different issue: what is the legal status of the Taiwan government—whether it possesses sovereignty—within a unified China. Chen Shui-bian, asked to proclaim his adherence to the one-China principle, fears that to do so is tantamount to making a fundamental concession before discussion even begins. Political pressure from within the DPP only reinforces his sense of caution. (There is another explanation of the stalemate, of course: that Beijing understands perfectly well what Taiwan has been emphasizing and rejects it because of the implications for the nature of its rule within China.)

Whether Beijing misunderstands Taipei or understands it too well, the result is the same. Beijing is unwilling to engage Taipei on a substantively equal basis. Instead, the two sides are playing a leverage game. Beijing builds up its military power and tries to build a united front that includes Taiwan businessmen and the conservative parties. Taiwan seeks stronger American support. It is impossible to know how this leverage game will play out. More clear is the growing potential for a train-wreck in U.S.-China relations over Taiwan.

The PRC has another option, which is to approach Taipei more on Taipei?s terms. I don?t see Beijing making such a bold overture as long Jiang Zemin is influential, in part because it is such a sharp departure from the Deng legacy. I can?t rule out the leaders in the fourth generation showing more creativity than Jiang has, but I would not bet the mortgage on it either.

Concluding Thoughts

This leadership transition is liable, therefore, to lack the sharp swing in policy of the Mao-to-Deng case and the policy division of the Deng-to-Jiang hand-over. Jiang and his colleagues in the third generation should retain some influence. Their successors appear to share their fundamental views on the United States and Taiwan. And the relatively inflexible character of those relationships will not permit radical innovations. This policy continuity will probably contribute to what should be the smoothest transition in PRC history.

Yet policy continuity does not necessarily spell stability. The U.S.-China relationship lacks both breadth—in terms of the issues on which cooperation is possible—and depth, in terms of public support in the two societies. The success of the PRC leverage policy toward Taiwan is far from guaranteed. Arguably, policy innovation—that is, broad political reform within China and abandonment of one-country, two-systems concerning Taiwan would put these relationships on a sounder basis, and reduce the possibility that its approach to Taiwan will undermine necessary good ties with the United States. Absent policy innovation, all three sides of this triangle—Beijing, Taipei, and Washington—will have to invest considerable resources in managing these relationships in order to minimize the potential for conflict.