Continuity and Change in Beijing

Over the last year, there have been leadership transition processes in four of the five permanent UN Security Council members. In East Asia, leadership elections or selections will have taken place in China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan over 2012. The transition in China has perhaps raised the most questions about whether it will lead to policy continuity or change. This is not just because of the high leadership turnover or because it is a once-in-a-decade process. It is also because, as a result of China’s growing influence in the world and interactions with other countries, including India, what happens in Beijing does not stay in Beijing.

What has actually transpired there? The 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, held last month, selected members of its Central Committee. That body selected members of the elite Politburo, seven of whom were chosen to be in the Politburo Standing Committee (psc). From that key ruling body, Xi Jinping has been appointed party general secretary, the first among equals in what is a collective leadership system, and designated president. He and designated premier Li Keqiang are likely to remain on the psc till 2022. Overall, the turnover in party leadership has been significant and, over the next few months, further changes will take place at the central and provincial government levels.

This turnover has led to much discussion abroad about the potential impact on China’s foreign policy. It is rare to hear the phrase “I don’t know from foreign policy pundits, but it is an oft-heard one in response to questions about the attitudes of the leaders who will be taking over in Beijing. Significant turnovers in leadership in any country give rise to questions about policy implications. Experts on Chinese domestic politics highlight a few reasons why these are especially difficult to answer in China’s case. First, in one-party systems like that of China, individuals do not rise to the top by publicly standing out from the crowd. Their worldviews, policy preferences and leadership styles are, thus, relatively unknown. Second, in a system that has been labelled “one party, two coalitions, how factional politics will play out in the various leadership bodies is also uncertain. Third, while psc members are no strangers to officialdom, having held positions at the central or provincial levels, they have not been part of the foreign policy apparatus and their views on international affairs are not evident. Another reason for the uncertainty at the moment is that the transition is ongoing. Government appointments will only be formalised in March 2013 when the National People’s Congress meets and when we will also get a clearer sense of the foreign policy leadership team.

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