New Challenges in Predicting China’s Upcoming Political Succession

China is set to undergo a major turnover in leadership at the 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) National Congress in fall 2012. The country’s three most important leadership bodies—the Politburo Standing Committee, State Council, and Central Military Commission—will replace about two-thirds of their members because of age or other factors. The principal figures responsible for the country’s political and ideological affairs, economic and financial administration, foreign policy, and military operations will consist largely of newcomers after 2012.

For the next two years, the leadership transition will be the main focus of power contenders in China. The China-watching community will also pay more attention to the next generation of rising stars, especially the successors to PRC President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

For US government leaders and business executives, accurate assessments of China’s upcoming political succession are essential to creating effective policies toward China. Though access to information about China’s leaders has never been better, Western analysts often miss the mark when they make predictions about politics and policy in China.

Better access, improved analysis?

For the first few decades of the People’s Republic of China, Western China watchers had minimal access to information and sources. Chinese military affairs scholar

Ellis Joffe once jokingly referred to his research on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as an exercise in “seeking truth from unavailable facts.” Today, many sources of information are available online, even for the relatively sensitive subject of Chinese military affairs. Several dozen unofficial Chinese websites focus on military affairs and provide extensive information about PLA officers’ backgrounds, PRC military strategies, China’s naval development objectives, and China’s newly obtained weapons.

The availability of new open sources of information and unprecedentedly dynamic US-China scholarly exchanges have altered the way Americans perceive political and economic developments in China. In particular, the sudden arrival and meteoric growth of the Internet has allowed the public to quickly and conveniently access more comprehensive official and unofficial Chinese sources. In some ways, the rapid growth of Internet sources has created an “oversupply” of information—a new challenge for those who study China. As John Naisbitt, author of the Megatrends series has noted in a general context, Western researchers of Chinese politics often find themselves “drowning in information but starved for knowledge.”

In trying to understand Chinese politics, many foreign analysts tend to hold one of two extreme views. Some analysts hold stale perceptions, are vulnerable to rumors, and overly focus on investigating information obtained from unverified “secret documents” in China. Other analysts have become so impressed by the achievements of the PRC leadership that they have lost their critical lens and sometimes overlook the fundamental deficiencies and flaws of the present-day Chinese political system.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the November-December 2010 China Business Review.
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