22 November 2012

Changing of the Guard 換兵儀式

It’s a once-in-a-decade exercise. Behind closed doors, deals are struck and broken, careers are bought and sold, battles are won and lost. When the white smoke finally rises from the conclave chimney, new kings are crowned and another layer of intervening leadership is added to one of the most opaque political systems in the world.

The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (第十八次黨代表大會) opened on 8 November and concluded less than a week later. Just as pundits had predicted, Xi Jinping (習近平), the rotund Beijing native and scion of a well-known party elder, emerged as the new paramount leader. To the rest of us on the other side of the door, the National Congress is little more than an auditorium full of men (and an occasional woman) in black suits and red ties applauding on cue. Though that’s not far from the truth, exactly what the National Congress does and how it is different from similarly-named bodies like the National People’s Congress or NPC (人民代表大會) continue to elude us. Before we talk about the leadership change, we begin with a crash course on Chinese politics. 

Passing the torch

Chinese Politics 101

The National Congress is made up of 2,270 delegates from the Communist Party of China or CPC. With the CPC’s membership topping 83 million, the National Congress is a very exclusive club. Unlike the NPC, the National Congress is not a legislative body or even part of the government. It is simply the CPC’s own caucus that meets every five years to select and promote new party leaders. Think of it as the Republican National Convention in the U.S. that nominates a presidential candidate in an election year. After the scourge of the Cultural Revolution, the CPC needed to prevent another personality cult by reshuffling their leadership every few years. In the 1980s, a pyramid structure was formally put in place. Twice a decade, the National Congress is called to elect the 205-member Central Committee (中央委員會), which in turn elects the powerful 25-member Politburo (中央政治局). The Politburo is the CPC’s nerve center where important policy decisions are made. A seat in the Politburo guarantees fortune and fame, often in the form of high-ranking regional positions. The Politburo then elects the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee or PSC ( 政治局常委會), the most exclusive club in Chinese politics. Each PSC member is responsible for a major national issue, from the economy to corruption and propaganda. The PSC is chaired by the General Secretary, the highest office in the land.

The pyramid scheme of leadership succession


That’s how things are supposed to work on paper. What happens in practice, however, is a different matter. First of all, the word “election” is used loosely in Chinese politics. The line-up of the Politburo and the PSC is determined by endless horse-trading and power struggles behind the scenes. The National Congress and the Central Committee are mere formalities to rubber-stamp whoever party elders pre-ordain. Second, the concept of retirement is alien to strongmen who have stepped down from their posts. As long as they still have a pulse, retired leaders continue to exert their influence by stuffing the Politburo with their own allies. Since Jiang Zemin (江澤民) stepped down in 2002, he has remained an éminence grise in key party decisions. Jiang was widely seen as the man responsible for Xi Jinping’s meteoric rise through the ranks and reportedly blocked two pro-reform candidates, Guangdong party chief Wang Yang (汪洋) and Head of the Organization Department Li Yuanchao (李源潮), from entering the Politburo last week. Because retired leaders refuse to give up control, each generational leadership change ends up throwing more people into a kitchen that already has too many cooks. And you know what they say about spoiled broth.

Old Jiang, will you ever die?


One Country, Two Factions

China is an autocracy. But what it lacks in multi-party dissent, it makes up for in factional politics. Exactly how many factions there are and who plays on which team is unclear. What we do know is that there are two main coalitions: the Populist Coalition comprising the Youth League Faction (共青派) and the Qinghua Clique (清華黨), against the Elitist Coalition made up of the Shanghai Clique (上海幫) and the Princelings (太子黨). The two coalitions have two different visions for the country. Led by outgoing President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), the Populists favor social harmony and a welfare state. By contrast, the Elitists, led by Jiang Zemin and his protégé Xi Jinping, are more interested in economic growth.

The who's who in factional politics


In the lead-up to the 18th National Congress, the level of party infighting – and how openly some of it had played out –  surprised even seasoned political analysts. Just when the country began to recover from the epic fall of Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai (薄熙來), the so-called Ferrari scandal broke out and brought down Hu’s ally Ling Jihua (令計劃). Then came the leaks to the Western press about hidden family fortunes belonging to Xi and Wen. Even the Diaoyu Islands disputes that have set Sino-Japanese relations back four decades are rumored to be an attempt by the Elitist Coalition to discredit Hu’s leadership. As China grows wealthier and the economic stakes get higher, factional conflicts will only become uglier and more intense.

Factional fighting gone bad

Who is Xi?

Party infighting notwithstanding, the National Congress must go on. At the eleventh hour, a deal was struck between the coalitions and Xi Jinping was anointed the fifth-generation party chief. Following in the footsteps of his predecessors – Mao, Deng, Jiang and Hu – Xi has assumed other powerful positions including Chairman of the Central Military Commission (中央軍委主席) and will become President when the NPC convenes in March 2013. Xi’s rise to political stardom is a far cry from his humble beginnings. After his father, a CPC founding member, was purged during the Cultural Revolution, Xi was exiled to remote Shaanxi Province for seven years, some of which were spent in a cave. His childhood hardship, combined with overseas exposures including a short stint in Iowa, set him up to be a different kind of leader: a more down-to-earth and progressive kind. But don’t get your hopes up that Xi will be China’s Mikhail Gorbachev. Jiang and other anti-reform elders are expected to monitor his every move, while political opponents like Hu and his protégé Premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang (李克強) will also keep close tabs on him. Li lost the bid for the top job to Xi and will begrudgingly play second fiddle to his princeling rival. Until Xi consolidates his power and builds his own political base (which may take years), he is likely to remain a status quo chairman.

The new PSC line-up
(Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are fourth and fifth from the left)

Xi’s Mandate

In his first public speech as General Secretary last week, Xi Jinping described corruption as a “severe challenge” and a “pressing problem.” The unusually dire rhetoric suggests the CPC’s determination to tackle a longstanding party ailment. But that’s easier said than done. Corruption is a toxin that has poisoned every level of government in China, widening the income gap and fueling social unrest in the process. Bribe-taking is no longer only about money and greed; it is a show of solidarity and a badge of honor. In an environment where everyone takes a little kickback here and offers a little hush money there, being a goody two-shoes makes you a bad team player. Bad team players don't do very well in Chinese politics.

Under this climate of coercive corruption, it is unclear whether Xi’s anti-graft rhetoric is anything but lip service. After all, Xi himself has reportedly amassed astronomical wealth in equity investments through an intricate structure of holding companies. He who lives in a glass house should think twice before throwing stones, especially when all his neighbors live in one too. It is possible that all that talk to dahei (打黑; literally, fight black) is simply a battle cry to intimidate his enemies. Anti-corruption has always been a convenient excuse to purge political opponents, just as Bo Xilai did when he took the helm as Chongqing’s party chief in 2007. Over the course of three years, Bo put away an estimated 5,700 government officials, judges and businessmen who stood in his way to power. If Xi is looking for a way to firm up his foothold in Beijing, he just may borrow a page from Bo’s playbook.

The man who invented dahei



The China that Xi Jinping inherited from Hu Jiatao is very different from the one Hu inherited from Jiang Zemin a decade ago. Sustained economic growth won’t go on forever and the system is slowly spinning out of control. If Communist China is a runaway train, then corruption is the coal that’s speeding up the engine. One false move – whether it is an economic downtown or another political scandal – and the train will fall off the cliff. Sensing the inevitable, government officials have been sending their children abroad and transferring their ill-gotten wealth offshore, with the side effect of driving up property prices all around the world. If the runaway train is not stopped in time, there may not be another changing of the guards in ten years. Xi has his work cut out for him.


It's a matter of time

_________________________________

This article also appears on SCMP.com under Jason Y. Ng's column "As I See It."

As posted on SCMP.com

17 November 2012

New Year in November (Reprise) 十一月的新年(重奏)


Four years ago, I wrote an article titled New Year in November about Barack Obama's historic victory. That's what it felt like  a new beginning, a rebirth  even to a blogger half the world away. Four years flew by in the blink of an eye and the president was up for re-election this month. This time I wanted to be there  in America, in the thick of things. I planned my annual home leave in the second week of November and arrived in New York just days after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast. Expecting the vote count to last all night, I stocked up on junk food in my hotel room in Midtown Manhattan. I had my laptop showing the electoral map and a calculator to tally the votes. I toggled back-and-forth between CNN and Fox News on the flat-screen TV while posting the latest election results on Facebook. I was a ready for a showdown.

New Year in November (Reprise)

I’m not an American citizen and so I can’t actually vote. Even if I were, my vote wouldn’t have mattered much because New York is what they call a “Blue State,” where residents predominantly vote for the Democratic Party. Under the winner-take-all electoral college system, all of the state’s 29 electoral votes would have gone to Obama regardless which way I would have voted. Since the Bush era, America has become more polarized and adversarial than ever. The political divide between the liberals (“Blue States”) and the conservatives (“Red States”) is so wide that there are even talks of secession. Either side refuses to compromise or acknowledge that their opponents can sometimes be right. This extreme case of partisanship sounds eerily familiar. Here in Hong Kong, the standoff between political movements like People Power (人民力量) and Scholarism (學民思潮) on the one hand, and C.Y. Leung’s government and the pro-Beijing camp on the other hand, turns every policy issue into a binary proposition: my way or the high way. I have always been a staunch liberal and a fervent supporter of the anti-government movement in Hong Kong. These days, I am finding myself increasingly intolerant of dissent and opposing viewpoints. I suppose I am every bit as guilty of partisanship as the political opponents I criticize.


A country polarized

At around 8:15PM on Election Night, after I had barely finished my first Kit Kat bar, NBC News declared Obama the projected winner of Ohio. The 18 electoral votes from the swing state were enough for the president to defeat his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Just like that, the show was over: Obama had won a second term. I was relieved. For a long time I had been genuinely worried that Obama would lose the race. After all, no U.S. president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has been re-elected with the national unemployment rate above 7%. And the stakes were so much higher this time around. It would have been far worse for Obama to lose the re-election in 2012 than to lose the first election in 2008. In American politics, there is no bigger kick-in-the-teeth than a one-term presidency. Just ask Jimmy Carter and George Bush Senior. If Obama had lost to John McCain four years ago, we would have shrugged it off and told ourselves that America wasn’t ready for a black president. But kicking Obama out of the White House after a single term would have been a whole other matter. It would have been tantamount to telling the world that America is ready for a black president but just that the black guy can’t handle the job. It would have made the country look narrow-minded and small. In a way I was as much rooting for America as I was for Obama.

The Republican Party's top (only?) priority

But Obama didn’t really win the election – it was Romney who lost it. Post-mortems are heavily underway, as the Republican Party scrambles to find out what went wrong. Pundits and political analysts are blanketing the airwaves with their own explanations. To me, the reason for Romney's loss is as plain as day: the Tea Party movement. The weak American economy has fueled the rise of radical conservatism, which in turn has intimidated moderate Republicans into taking more extreme social and political positions. While the GOP speaks of fiscal responsibility and job creation, it seems far more interested in rolling back women’s rights and civil liberties. In the process, the Republicans have alienated women, blacks, Hispanics and other minority voters. The radicalization of the Republican Party troubles many Americans and baffles the rest of the world. Outside the U.S., we wonder how a country progressive enough to elect a black president can allow a bunch of red-neck whack jobs to hijack its national agenda. No wonder tourism in America is down and visitors steer clear of the Red States.

A tea-bagger having a grand old time

With Obama back on the job, all eyes are now on the next election. If my predictions are right, 2016 will see a run-off between Hillary Clinton and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Clinton has already stepped down as secretary of state to presumably make time for her White House bid. Christie, on the other hand, has been thrust to the national forefront after scoring major political points for his handling of Hurricane Sandy. To increase his odds against the most admired woman in America, the heavy-set WASPy governor will need to lose 100 pounds and learn a little Spanish. I've always wondered why America, a country that revels in political showmanship and invented reality television, doesn't have a first lady debate. It's about time we changed that, starting with Campaign 2016. Imagine the fireworks when Bill Clinton takes on little known Mary Christie on foreign policy in front of tens of millions of viewers. I can't think of a better prime-time entertainment.

The charismatic Chris Christie and his wife Mary

To those who say that Obama has lost his mojo after a lackluster performance in the first presidential debate, look no further than the way he delivered his victory speech on Election Night. He still has plenty of fire in his belly. And to those who say that Western democracy is doomed because of wasteful campaign spending and paralyzing partisanship, look no further than what Obama said in his victory speech. He offered a cogent rebuttal. 

“That’s why we do this,” he explained, “[because] people in distant nations are risking their lives just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.” 

Obama was talking about us. He was talking about the 1.3 billion Chinese who, just two days ago, were told the names of their new leaders after the National Congress convened behind closed doors. In his first public speech as the new paramount leader, Xi Jinping (習近平) spoke of reform and a better life for the poor. That’s all very kind of Xi, except that not one of us had voted for him.

The new leadership meets the press


__________________________

This article also appears on SCMP.com under Jason Y. Ng's column "As I See It."

As posted on SCMP.com