China’s New Leaders May Surprise Obama

November 28, 2012
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

Both China and the United States completed their respective political transitions this November. President Obama secured a second term in the White House and will remain the U.S. commander-in-chief. Xi Jinping ascended to the chairmanship of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and, in what was a surprise to some observers, took control of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC). Many expected retiring CCP chairman Hu Jintao to retain control of the body that governs the Chinese military.

Hu’s “graceful” surrender of the CMC chair may be a sign Xi enjoys the Chinese Communist Party equivalent of a mandate. Unlike Hu, a “closet reformer” hemmed in by a deadlocked collective leadership, Xi commands what Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution describes as “a majority” within the Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s most powerful decision-making body. Chinese domestic politics is often characterized as a struggle between two dominant factions: the “princeling” children of past communist party leaders and the Hu Jintao-led “tuanpai” faction based in the Chinese Communist Youth League. Six of the seven members of the new Standing Committee, according to Li, are associated with Xi’s “princeling” faction.

The Obama administration plans to follow through on its controversial strategic “pivot” to Asia despite vociferous Chinese criticism of the strategy as a throwback to Cold War containment. The foreign policy coaches who called this Asian play, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and his former senior director for East Asian affairs Jeffrey Bader, heavily discount Chinese concerns.

Donilon believes the Obama administration enjoys “extensive habits of cooperation and communication” with its Chinese counterparts and frequently reminds audiences how often he meets with senior Chinese leaders. Donilon insists the Chinese “recognize the importance” of the U.S. “security platform” in Asia, and places more faith in supposedly supportive “statements the Chinese have put out after our encounters” than the more frequent and sharply critical commentary coming from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Chinese military spokespersons, Chinese academics and the Chinese media.  Bader claims Chinese officials express a more sympathetic understanding of Obama’s new Asia policy in private. He interprets China’s official public statements of concern as nationalistic posturing for domestic consumption.

Discounting Chinese criticism of the “pivot” could lead to some surprises as the Obama administration confronts China’s new leaders. According to many of my Chinese colleagues, Xi Jinping and his contemporaries are unlikely to be as deferential or as intentionally abstruse as their predecessors. Few share Donilon’s positive assessment of the bilateral dialog and some worry U.S. decision-makers will not be able to adjust to the generational shift that took place during the 18th Party Congress.

Robert Blohm‘s suggestion that Xi’s initial remarks to journalists embody what one Chinese dissident describes as a new Chinese naziism seem overblown, but Xi’s use of the term “Great Chinese National Renaissance  (中华民族伟大复兴)” deserves attention.

Having consumed nearly thirty years of Chinese Communist Party propaganda, I don’t believe Xi’s reiteration of a long-standing CCP talking point represents a dramatic departure from past practice. Those concerned about Xi’s choice of words should watch the 2007 CCTV 6-part series The Road to Renaissance (复兴之路). It tells the familiar story of an ancient civilization, fractured by the dissolution of its traditional culture and exploited by foreign imperialism, that is now in the process of restoration under the leadership of what recent history “proves” is the only political organization capable of unifying the country, developing the economy and realizing the long repressed potential of the Chinese people.

The aims of the Chinese Renaissance are fairly modest; to achieve the status of a “basically modern” nation whose citizens enjoy a “medium level” of economic development by the middle of this century. That’s not the kind of ambition U.S. observers seem to expect from a “rising power.” There is no justifiable comparison, obviously, to the aims or the rhetoric of the Third Reich. The high tide of Maoist demagoguery crested during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), leaving in its wake a healthy distrust of grandiose plans and cultish political behaviors that could transform the People’s Republic into a twenty-first century version of late Meiji Japan.

The Chinese revolution is unique. Comparisons to other nations and other eras are more likely to mislead than to enlighten. The most insidious subplot in the CCP’s historically legitimating political narrative —which Mr. Bader and Mr. Donilon should study more carefully and take more seriously—is the challenge expected from what is depicted as an inherently hostile capitalist elite. Chinese interpretations of the Obama administration’s “pivot” as a policy designed to constrain Chinese economic development are a product of a deeply entrenched worldview that extends well beyond the eighty-million members of the CCP. The entire Chinese population is educationally pre-programmed to interpret the “pivot” as a challenge to their relatively humble expectations for a better life.

Foreign observers who focus on the supposedly ethnic or nationalist characteristics of Chinese political propaganda tend to overlook the arguably more important socialist worldview that still defines the regime. Many of those observers assume, without careful investigation, that Chinese communism is a bankrupt ideology, either because of the growing hold of market forces in Chinese economic planning or widespread patterns of corruption. That is a questionable hypothesis. Xi and the other “princelings” who inherited their parent’s revolution, whatever their personal vices, probably still believe in it. They most certainly understand their political legitimacy depends on whether their fellow citizens do, and especially whether the men and women of the People’s Liberation Army—the Party’s army—remain willing to sacrifice their lives to defend it.

It would be a mistake, therefore, for U.S. policy-makers to underestimate the power and the relevance of Chinese socialism in the formation and implementation of the foreign and security policies of China’s new leaders. They see the world and China’s place in it very differently than President Obama, whatever they may be telling his aides and emissaries behind closed doors.