China’s Political Transition: A Balanced Assessment of its Problems and Promises

Editor’s Note: In testimony to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s hearing on “China’s New Leadership and Implications for the United States,” Cheng Li gives his assessment on China’s leadership transition, and the problems and promises the country faces as it enters a new political era.

Seldom in history has the attention of the world been so closely focused on political succession in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as it was during the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held last fall. The international community’s strong interest in the event should not be surprising for four main reasons. First, this is the first CCP leadership transition taking place at a time when China has fully emerged as a global economic powerhouse. In China, as elsewhere in the world, new leadership often means new policies. The policies––be they monetary, trade, industrial, environmental, or energy related–– of the incoming top leaders in China have the potential to make a major impact on the global economy.

Second, the significance of the leadership change in China goes well beyond the economic realm. As the PRC now carries more weight on the world stage, the Chinese government’s handling of domestic political issues, from human rights and religious freedom to ethnic tensions and media censorship, is increasingly in the international spotlight. Foreign commentary and criticism, especially that which originates in the United States, is often interpreted in China as a U.S.-led conspiracy to curtail China’s rise. The Chinese leadership has therefore tended to adopt a nationalistic foreign policy toward the United States, other Western countries, and some neighboring countries with which is has territorial disputes. Whether China’s new leadership will become more militant and confrontational in its foreign policy has become a central concern in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in the wake of recent tensions with Japan.

Third, there were several scandals and political crises on the eve of the 18th Party Congress last year, most notably the dramatic downfall of Bo Xilai, who was the former Party chief of Chongqing and a rising star in the top ranks of the CCP. These events exposed the deep flaws of China’s political system. Although the CCP has been guilty of political repression and has made grave mistakes during its long rule, senior Party leaders have generally not been known for gangland-style murders. But now Bo’s wife has been convicted of having plotted the murder of a British business associate while Bo’s former lieutenant, the police chief of Chongqing, has also been found guilty of abusing his power. The public is left wondering: What expectations of impunity moved Bo to engage in the misdeeds, including obstruction of justice, alleged on his long charge sheet? The astonishingly great amount of bribery in the case of the Bo family and also in the cases of other national and local leaders––e.g., recent cases involving former top officials in the Railways Ministry taking bribes totaling several billion U.S. dollars—has vividly portrayed to the world the unprecedented scale of official corruption. These scandals have profoundly undermined the legitimacy of CCP rule, thus constituting an overwhelming challenge for the new leadership. The sense of political uncertainty––and fear of disruptive social uprising in the world’s most populous country––is on the rise.

Read the full testimony » (PDF)