In 2012, the Communist Party of China's (CPC) leaders will retire and a new generation — the so-called fifth generation — will take the helm. The transition will affect the CPC's most powerful decision-making organs, determining the makeup of the 18th CPC Central Committee, the Political Bureau (Politburo) of the Central Committee, and most important, the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee that is the core of political power in China. While there is considerable uncertainty over the handoff, given China's lack of clear, institutionalized procedures for succession and the immense challenges facing the regime, there is little reason to anticipate a succession crisis. But the sweeping personnel change comes at a critical juncture in China's modern history, with the economic model that has enabled decades of rapid growth having become unsustainable, social unrest rising, and international resistance to China's policies increasing. At the same time, the characteristics of the fifth generation leaders suggest a cautious and balanced civilian leadership paired with an increasingly influential and nationalist military. This will lead to frictions over policy even as both groups remain firmly committed to perpetuating the regime. The Chinese leadership that emerges from 2012 will likely be unwilling or unable to decisively carry out deep structural reforms, obsessively focused on maintaining internal stability, and more aggressive in pursuing the core strategic interests it sees as essential to this stability. Just as China's civilian leadership will change, China's military will see a sweeping change in leadership in 2012. The military's influence over China's politics and policies has grown over the past decade, as the country has striven to professionalize and modernize its forces and expand its capabilities in response to deepening international involvement and challenges to its internal stability. The fifth generation military leaders are the first to have come out of the military modernization process, and to have had their careers shaped by the priorities of a China that has become a global economic power. They will take office at a time when the military's budget, stature and influence over politics is growing, and when it has come to see its role as extending beyond that of a guarantor of national security to becoming a guide for the country as it moves forward and up the ranks of international power.
Power transitions in the People's Republic of China have always been fraught with uncertainty because the state does not have clear and fixed institutional procedures for the transfer of power between leaders and generations. The state's founding leader, Mao Zedong, did not establish a formal process before he died, giving rise to a power struggle. Mao's eventual successor, Deng Xiaoping, was also a strong leader whose personal power could override rules and institutions. But Deng's retirement also failed to set a firm succession precedent. He saw two of his chosen successors lose out amid factional struggles, and Deng maintained extensive influence well after formally retiring and passing power to Jiang Zemin and naming Jiang's successor, current President Hu Jintao. Even though China does not have any fixed rules on power transfers, a series of precedents and informal rules have been observed. Recent years have seen a move toward the solidification of these rules. Deng set a pattern in motion that smoothed the 2002 presidential transition from Jiang to Hu despite behind-the-scenes factional tensions. As mentioned, Deng had also appointed Hu to be Jiang's successor. This lent Hu some of Deng's great authority, thus establishing an air of inevitability and deterring potential power grabs. This leap-frog pattern was reinforced when Jiang put Vice President Xi Jinping in line to succeed Hu in 2012. The coming transfer will test whether the trend toward stable power transitions can hold.
Characteristics of the Fifth Generation
While all countries experience leadership changes that can be described as generational in one sense or another, modern Chinese history has been so eventful as to have created generations that, as a group, share distinct characteristics and are markedly different from their forebearers in their historical, educational and career experiences. Deng created the concept of the "generational" framework by dubbing himself the core second-generation leader after Mao, and events and patterns in leadership promotion and retirement reinforced the framework. The most defining factor of a Chinese leadership generation is its historical background. The first generation defined itself by the formation of the Communist Party and the Long March of exile in the 1930s, the second generation in the war against the Japanese (World War II), and the third during civil war and the founding of the state in 1949. The fourth generation came of age during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, Mao's first attempt to transform the entire Chinese economy. The fifth generation is the first group of leaders that cannot — or can only barely — remember a time before the foundation of the People's Republic. These leaders' formative experiences were shaped during the Cultural Revolution (1967-77), a period of deep social and political upheaval in which the Mao government empowered hard-liners to purge their political opponents in the bureaucracy and Communist Party. Schools and universities were closed in 1966 and youths were sent down to rural areas to do manual labor, including many fifth-generation leaders such as likely future President Xi Jinping. Some young people were able to return to college after 1970, where they could only study Marxism-Leninism and CPC ideology, while others sought formal education when schools were reopened after the Cultural Revolution. Very few trained abroad, so they did not become attuned to foreign attitudes and perceptions in their formative days (whereas the previous generation had sent some young leaders to study in the Soviet Union). Characteristically, given the fuller educational opportunities that arose in the late 1970s, the upcoming leaders have backgrounds in a wide range of studies. Many were trained as lawyers, economists and social scientists, as opposed to the engineers and natural scientists who have dominated the previous generations of leadership.
The politicians almost certain to join the Politburo Standing Committee in 2012 appear to represent a balance between factional tendencies. The top two, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, are the youngest members of the current Politburo Standing Committee and are all but certain to become president and premier, respectively. Xi is a princeling — son of Xi Zhongxun, an early Communist revolutionary and deputy prime minister — and his leadership in Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai exemplifies the ability of coastal manufacturing provinces to enhance an official's career. But Xi is also popular with the public, widely admired for his hardships as a rural worker during the Cultural Revolution. He is the best example of bridging both major factions — promoting economic reforms but seen as having the people's best interests at heart. Li was trained as an economist under a prestigious teacher at Beijing University, received a law degree, and is a former top secretary of the CCYL and stalwart of Hu's faction. Economics is his specialty, not in itself but as a means to social harmony. For example, he is famous for promoting further revitalization of northeastern China's industrial rust belt of factories that have fallen into disrepair. Li also has held leadership positions in provinces like Henan, an agricultural province, and Liaoning, a heavy-industrial province, affording him a view of starkly different aspects of the national economy. After Xi and Li, the most likely contenders for seats on the Politburo Standing Committee are Li Yuanchao, director of the CPC's powerful organization department (CCYL clique), Wang Yang (CCYL), member of the CPC's Politburo, Liu Yunshan (CCYL), director of the CPC's propaganda department, and Vice Premier Wang Qishan (princeling/Jiang's Shanghai clique). The next most likely candidates include Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang (Jiang's Shanghai clique), Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai (princeling), Tianjin Party Secretary Zhang Gaoli (Jiang's Shanghai clique) and CPC General Office Director Ling Jihua (secretary to Hu Jintao, CCYL clique). It is impossible to predict exactly who will be appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee. The lineup is the result of intense negotiation between the current committee members, with the retiring members (everyone except Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang) wielding the most influence. Currently, of the nine Politburo Standing Committee members, as many as six are Jiang Zemin proteges, and they will push for their followers to prevent Hu from taking control of the committee.
The factions are not so antagonistic that an intense power struggle is likely to rip them apart. Instead, they can be expected to exercise power by forging compromises. Leaders are chosen by their superiors through a process of careful negotiation to prevent an imbalance of one faction over another that could lead to purges or counterpurges. That balance looks as if it will roughly be maintained in the configuration of leaders in 2012. In terms of policymaking, powerful leaders will continue to debate deep policy disagreements behind closed doors. Through a process of intense negotiation, they will try to arrive at a party line and maintain it uniformly in public. Stark disagreements and fierce debates will echo through the statements of minor officials and academics, and in public discussions, newspaper editorials, and other venues, however. In extreme situations, these policy battles could lead to the ousting of officials who end up on the wrong side. But the highest party leaders will not contradict each other openly on matters of great significance unless a dire breakdown has occurred, as happened with fallen Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu. That the fifth generation leadership appears in agreement on the state's broadest economic and political goals, even if they differ on the means of achieving those goals, will be conducive to maintaining the factional balance. First, there is general agreement on the need to continue with China's internationally oriented economic and structural reforms. These leaders spent the prime of their lives in the midst of China's rapid economic transformation from a poor and isolated pariah state into an international industrial and commercial giant, and were the first to experience the benefits of this transformation. They also know that the CPC's legitimacy has come to rest, in great part, on its ability to deliver greater economic opportunity and prosperity to the country — and that the greatest risk to the regime would likely come in the form of a shrinking or dislocated economy that causes massive unemployment. Therefore, for the most part they remain dedicated to continuing with market-oriented reform. They will do so gradually and carefully, however, and will not seek to intensify reformist efforts to the point of dramatically increasing the risk of social disruption. Needless to say, while the elitists can be energetic in their pursuit of economic liberalization, the populists tend to be more suspicious and more willing to re-centralize controls to avoid undesirable political side effects, even at the expense of long-term risks to the economy. More fundamentally, all fifth generation leaders are committed to maintaining CPC rule. The chaos of the Cultural Revolution impressed upon the fifth generation a sense of the extreme dangers of China's having allowed an autocratic ruler to dominate the decision-making process and intra-party struggle to run rampant. Subsequent events have reinforced the fear of internal divisions: the protest and military crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989, the threat of alternative movements exemplified by the Falun Gong protest in 1999, the general rise in social unrest throughout the economic boom of the 1990s and 2000s. More recent challenges have reinforced this, such as natural disasters like the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, ethnic violence and riots in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009, and the pressures of economic volatility since the global economic crisis of 2008. These events have underscored the need to maintain unity and stability in the Party ranks and in Chinese society, by force when necessary. So while the fifth generation is likely to agree on the need to continue with economic reform and perhaps even limited political reform, it will do so only insofar as it can without destabilizing socio-political order. It will delay, soften, undermine, or reverse reform to ensure stability. Once again, the difference between the factions lies in judging how best to preserve and bolster the regime.
Beyond the apparent balance of forces in the central party and government organs, there remains the tug-of-war between the central government in Beijing and the 33 provincial governments (not to mention Taiwan) — a reflection of the timeless struggle in China between center and periphery. If China is to be struck by deep destabilization under the watch of the fifth generation leaders (which is by no means impossible, especially given the economic troubles facing them), the odds are this would occur along regional lines. Stark differences have emerged, as China's coastal manufacturing provinces have surged ahead while provinces in the interior, west and northeast have lagged. The CPC's solution to this problem generally has been to redistribute wealth from the booming coast to the interior in hopes that subsidizing the less developed regions eventually will nurture economic development. In some instances, such as in Shaanxi or Sichuan provinces, urbanization and development have indeed accelerated in recent years. But overall, the interior remains weak and dependent on subsidies from Beijing. The problem for China's leadership is that the coastal provinces' export-led model of growth that has worked well over the past three decades has begun to peak, and China's annual double-digit growth rates are expected to slow due to weakening external demand, rising labor and material costs and other factors. The result will be louder demands from poor provinces and tighter fists in rich provinces — exposing and deepening competition, and in some cases leading to animosity between the regions. More so than any previous generation, the fifth generation has extensive cross-regional career experience. This is because climbing to the top of Party and government has increasingly required that many of these leaders first serve in central organizations in Beijing and then do a stint (or more) as governor or Party secretary of one of the provinces (the more far-flung, the better), before returning to a higher central Party or government position in Beijing. Hu Jintao followed such a path, as have many of the aforementioned candidates for the Politburo Standing Committee. Moreover, it has become increasingly common to put officials in charge of a region other than the one from which they originally hailed to reduce regionalism and regional biases. This practice has precedent in China's imperial history, when it was used to prevent the rise of mini-fiefdoms and the devolution of power. More of the likely members of the 2012 Politburo Standing Committee than ever before have experience as provincial chiefs. This means that when these leaders take over top national positions, they theoretically will have a better grasp of the realities facing the provinces they rule, and will be less likely to be beholden to a single regional constituency or support base. This could somewhat mitigate the central government's difficulty in dealing with profound divergences of interest between the central and provincial governments. But regional differences are grounded in fundamental, geographical and ethnic realities, and have become increasingly aggravated by the disproportionate benefits of China's economic success. Temporary changes of position across the country have not prevented China's leaders from forming lasting bonds with certain provinces to the neglect of others; and many politicians still have experience exclusively with the regional level of government, and none with the central. The patron-client system, by which Chinese officials give their loyalty to superiors in exchange for political perks or monetary rewards, remains ineradicable. Massive personal networks extend across party and government bureaus, from the center to the regions. Few central leaders remain impervious to the pull of these regional networks, and none can remain in power long if his or her regional power base or bases have been cut. The tension between the center and provinces will remain one of the greatest sources of stress on the central leadership as it negotiates national policy. As with any novice political leadership, the fifth generation leaders will take office with little experience of what it means to be fully in charge of a nation. Provincial leadership experience has provided good preparation, but the individual members have yet to show signs of particularly strong national leadership capabilities. The public sees only a few of the upcoming members of the Politburo Standing Committee as successfully having taken charge during events of major importance (for instance, Xi Jinping's response to Tropical Storm Bilis, Wang Qishan's handling of the SARS epidemic and the Beijing Olympics); only one has military experience (Xi, and it is slight); and only a few of the others have shown independence or forcefulness in their leadership style (namely Wang Qishan and Bo Xilai). Because current Politburo Standing Committee members or previous leaders (like former President Jiang Zemin) will choose the future committee members after painstaking negotiations, this might preserve the balance of power between the cliques. It might also result in a "compromise" leadership — effectively one that would strive for a middle-of-the-road approach, even at the cost of achieving mediocre results. A collective leadership of these members, precariously balanced, runs the risk of falling into divisions when resolute and sustained effort is necessary, as is likely given the economic, social and foreign policy challenges that it will likely face during its tenure. This by no means is to say the fifth generation is destined to be weak. Chinese leaders have a time-tested strategy of remaining reserved for as long as possible and not revealing their full strength until necessary. And China's centralist political system generally entails quick implementation once the top leadership has made up its mind on a policy. Still, judging by available criteria, the fifth generation leaders are likely to be reactive, like the current administration. Where they are proactive, it will be on decisions pertaining to domestic security and social stability.
The Rise of the People's Liberation Army
- Maintaining internal stability in China has resulted in several high-profile cases in which the armed forces played a critical role. Natural disasters such as massive flooding (1998, 2010) and earthquakes (especially in Sichuan in 2008) have required the military to provide relief and assistance, giving rise to more attention on military planning and thereby improving the military's propaganda efforts and public image and prestige. Because China is prone to natural disasters and its environmental difficulties have worsened as its massive population and economy have put greater pressure on the landscape, the military is expected to continue playing a greater role in disaster relief, including by offering to help abroad. At the same time, the rising frequency of social unrest, including riots and ethnic violence in regions like Xinjiang and Tibet, has led to military involvement in such matters. As the trend of rising social unrest looks to continue in the coming years, so the military will be called upon to restore order, especially through the elite People's Armed Police, which falls under the joint control of the Central Military Commission and State Council.
- As China's economy has become the second largest in the world, its international dependencies have increased. China depends on stable and secure supply lines to maintain imports of energy, raw materials, and components and exports of components and finished goods. Most of these commodities and merchandise are traded over sea, often through choke-points such as the straits of Hormuz and Malacca, making them vulnerable to interference from piracy, terrorism, conflicts between foreign states, or interdiction by navies hostile to China (i.e., the United States, India or Japan). Therefore it needs the PLAN to expand its capabilities and reach so as to secure these vital supplies — otherwise the economy would be exposed to potential shocks that could translate into social and political disturbances. This policy has also led the PLA to take a more active role in U.N. peacekeeping efforts and other international operations, expand integrated training and ties with foreign militaries, and build a hospital ship to begin military-led diplomacy.
- Competition with foreign states is intensifying as China has become more powerful economically and internationally conspicuous. In addition to building capabilities to assert its sovereignty over Taiwan, China has become more aggressive in defending its sovereignty and territorial claims in its neighboring seas — especially in the South China Sea, which Beijing elevated in 2010 to a "core" national interest (along with sovereignty over Taiwan and Tibet) and also in the East China Sea. This assertiveness has led to rising tension with neighbors that have competing claims on potentially resource-rich territory in the seas, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Japan. Moreover, Beijing's newfound assertiveness has collided with U.S. moves to bulk up its alliances and partnerships in the region, which Beijing sees as a strategy aimed at constraining China's rise.
- China's military modernization remains a primary national policy focus. Military modernization includes acquiring and developing advanced weaponry, improving information technology and communications, heightening capabilities on sea and in the air, and developing capabilities in new theaters such as cyberwarfare and outer space. It also entails improving Chinese forces' mobility, rapid reaction, special operations forces and ability to conduct combined operations between different military services.
- The PLA has become more vocal, making statements and issuing editorials in forums like the PLA Daily and, for the most part, receiving positive public responses. In many cases, military officers have voiced a nationalistic point of view shared by large portions of the public (though one prominent military officer, Liu Yazhou, a princeling and commissar at National Defense University, has used his standing to call for China to pursue Western-style democratic political reforms). Military officials can strike a more nationalist pose where politicians would have trouble due to consideration for foreign relations and the concern that nationalism is becoming an insuppressible force of its own.
Of course, a more influential military does not mean one that believes it is all-powerful. China will still try to avoid direct confrontation with the United States and its allies and maintain relations internationally given its national economic strategy and the fact that its military has not yet attained the same degree of sophistication and capability as its chief competitors. But the military's growing influence is likely to encourage a more assertive China, especially in the face of heightened internal and external threats.
The Central Military Commission
The Central Military Commission (CMC) is the state's most powerful military body, comprising the top ten military chiefs, and chaired by the country's civilian leader. This means the CMC has unfettered access to the top Chinese leader, and can influence him through a more direct channel than through its small representation on the Politburo Standing Committee. Thus the CMC is not only the core decision-making body of the Chinese military, it is also the chief conduit through which the military can influence the civilian leadership.
Old and New Trends
Of the leading military figures, there are several observable trends. Regional favoritism in recruitment and promotion remains a powerful force, and regions that have had the greatest representation on the CMC in the past will retain their prominent place: Shandong, Hebei, Henan, Shaanxi and Liaoning provinces, respectively, appear likely to remain the top regions represented by the new leadership, according to research by Cheng Li, a prominent Chinese scholar. These provinces are core to the CPC's support base. There is considerably less representation in the upper officer corps from Shanghai, Guangdong, Sichuan, or the western regions, all of which are known for regionalism and are more likely to stand at variance with Beijing. (This is not to say that other provinces, Sichuan for instance, do not produce a large number of soldiers.) One group of leaders, the princelings, are likely to take a much greater role in the CMC in 2012 than in the current CMC, in great part because these are the children or relatives of Communist Party revolutionary heroes and elites and were born during the 1940s-50s. Examples include the current naval commander and CMC member Wu Shengli, political commissar of the Second Artillery Corps Zhang Haiyang, and two deputy chiefs of the general staff, Ma Xiaotian and Zhang Qinsheng. In politics, the princelings are not necessarily a coherent faction with agreed-upon policy leanings. Though princeling loyalties are reinforced by familial ties and inherited from fathers, grandfathers and other relatives, they share similar elite backgrounds, their careers have benefited from these privileges, and they are viewed and treated as a single group by everyone else. In the military, the princelings are more likely to form a unified group capable of a coherent viewpoint, since the military is more rigidly hierarchical and personal ties are based on staunch loyalty. The strong princeling presence could constitute an interest group within the military leadership capable of pressing more forcefully for its interests than it would otherwise be able to do. A marked difference in the upcoming CMC is the rising role of the PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery Corps, as against the traditionally dominant army. This development was made possible by the enlargement of the CMC in 2004, elevating the commanders of each of these non-army services to the CMC, and it is expected to hold in 2012. The army will remain the most influential service across the entire fifth generation military leadership, with the navy, air force, and missile corps following close behind. But crucially, in the 2012 CMC the army's representation could decline relative to the other branches of service, since of the three members of the current CMC eligible to stay only one comes from the army (General Armaments Department Director Chang Wangquan) and many of the next-highest candidates also hail from other services. After all, missile capabilities and sea and air power are increasingly important as China focuses on the ability to secure its international supply chains and prevent greater foreign powers (namely the United States) from approaching too closely areas of strategic concern. The greater standing of the PLAN, PLAAF, and Second Artillery Corps is already showing signs of solidifying, since officers from these services used not to be guaranteed representation on the CMC but now appear to have a permanent place.
Civilian Leadership Maintained
The rising current of military power in the Chinese system could manifest in any number of ways. Sources tell STRATFOR that military officers who retire sooner than civilian leaders may start to take up civilian positions in the ministries or elsewhere in the state bureaucracy. Nevertheless, the overall arc of recent Chinese history has reinforced the model of civilian leadership over the military. The Communist Party retains control of the CMC, the central and provincial bureaucracies, the state-owned corporations and banks, mass organizations, and most of the media. Moreover, there does not appear to be a single military strongman who could lead a significant challenge to civilian leadership. So while the military's sway is undoubtedly rising, and the upcoming civilian leadership could get caught in stalemate over policy, the military is not in a position to seize power. Rather, it is maneuvering to gain more influence within the system, adding another element of intrigue to the already tense bargaining structure that defines elite politics in China. But despite possible military-civilian frictions, the PLA will seek to preserve the regime, and to manage or suppress internal or external forces that could jeopardize that goal.