China's Rocky Leadership Transition

The risk of uprisings in China is not as farfetched as some may think.

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In this Aug. 29, 2012 file photo, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping meets with Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Leadership changes are imminent in East Asia's dominant economies,China, Japan and South Korea, in the midst of territorial disputes that could spark conflict. The new leaders who emerge will be crucial in setting the tone for relations with the next occupant of the White House. How the U.S. gets on with China affects the entire region. Many Asian countries look to China as their main trading partner, but they regard the longstanding U.S. security presence as a defense against China's rapid military buildup. Xi Jinping, who will take the party helm and be anointed China's president in March, is a largely unknown quantity.

Andrew S. Natsios is an executive professor at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and the author of Sudan, South Sudan and Darfur: What Everyone Needs to Know. Natsios served as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and as President George W. Bush's Special Envoy to Sudan.

China is in the midst a leadership transition from President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to a new generation of Chinese leaders who will rule for the next decade—to be led by Xi Jinping, the anointed successor to President Hu, whose selection be will officially announced in a week. The transition has not been smooth. The Chinese blogosphere is full of rumors of coup attempts and gun fire between rival factions in a power struggle, though we have no hard evidence to support the rumors—at least not yet. The American media last week became players in the drama when on October 26 the New York Times ran a very embarrassing front page story on retiring Premier Wen Jiabao's family fortune which could be as high as $2.7 billion. Though the Times story does not specifically report Wen's personal wealth, it raises questions as to how his family made so much money while he held office. Within an hour the Chinese government blocked internet access to the New York Times to prevent the dissemination of the story. Wen had been at the forefront of the anti-corruption campaign in China, insisting party leaders disclose their personal wealth to force some accountability in a political system riven with corruption. The timing and detail of the story suggests the sources of this information may be Wen's adversaries in the power struggle (despite the Times denial).

The current leadership intrigue has pitted the technocratic ruling elite—represented by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao and their successors—who support markets, business, and economic growth against the neo-Communist insurgents who argue this growth has led to massive disparities in wealth, widespread corruption, an abandonment of the Communist party's egalitarian commitment to the mass of the people, and advocate a return to an idealized (and illusory) Communist past. The neo-Communists also demand a more aggressive Chinese nationalism and more confrontational approach towards dealing with its neighbors and the United States. While the neo-Communists have lost the current power struggle, the long-term battle is by no means over.

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Many in the current Chinese leadership fear that lower rates of economic growth will cause more internal instability particularly in the cities, and more internal discord within the Chinese government than the past decade which saw a quadrupling of the economy under Hu Jintao. Unrest has been growing in China over the past decade according to China experts who monitor demonstrations and protests: For the past few years there have been 90,000 "incidents" annually, an increase from 58,000 incidents in 2003. Many of these have been violent, driven by public anger at official abuse, arbitrary land grabs, and corruption. As much as 70 percent of the rising rates of inflation in China over the past three years has been caused by food price increases. With no corresponding increase in wages these price increases have reduced the food security of low income families which spend 50 percent of their income on food—an increased anxiety that they may not be able to feed their families in the future. Neo-Communist insurgents reportedly argue the new leadership will not have the toughness to suppress coming unrest in the cities caused by these higher unemployment rates, food insecurity, and the rising demands of younger Chinese for more personal freedom and a more open society.

Intriguing evidence of this power struggle may be found in a rash of new books published over the past few years on the Great Leap Famine in China from 1958-1962. It was caused by Mao Zedung's Great Forward plan to speed China's economic growth which by any measure was a catastrophic failure, moving an already destitute country backwards, and causing enormous human suffering on a scale unparalleled in human history. While at least two books have been written over the past 25 years about the famine—one by Jasper Becker and the other by Dali Yang—several new books have been published in the past few years. They appear to have had semi-official sanction because their authors use official Chinese government and Communist party archives for their research. Hu Jintao was the first Chinese head of state to state publicly that Mao was wrong on some matters, which opened the door to research and criticism of his leadership that had been previously forbidden. Frank Dikotter, a Dutch scholar who teaches at a Hong Kong university, in his book Mao's Great Famine, estimates 45 million people died in the famine; he puts the blame squarely on Mao Zedung directly for what must be the worst famine in recorded history. Some of these famine histories are being translated into Chinese in Taiwan where they may well make their way into mainland China, something the Hu Jintao faction may not try to prevent. Are these new books being used as a weapon of the progrowth economic elite to attack the neo-Communist insurgents who have created for political purposes an idealized, but fictional, account of the Chinese past when Mao ran the country? 

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The neo-Communist insurgents have support in the Chinese military and police which may explain why the Chinese civilian leadership is executing sweeping changes among its military leaders—reported by the Wall Street Journal October 24—just a week before the new political leadership is officially chosen. The neo-Communist sympathizers in the Chinese military may not know the role of the People's Liberation Army in ending Mao's famine. It was Marshal Peng Dehuai, the minister of defense and one of the country's most senior generals, who first publicly challenged at the Lushan Conference in 1959 Mao's delusional view of the success of his economic plan. He reported that there was widespread starvation in the rural areas as a result of Mao's policies which led to Peng being purged of his positions. Jasper Becker writes in his remarkable book Hungry Ghosts that one of the factors that forced Mao to change course in 1962 was unrest in the People's Liberation Army and fear of a coup as soldiers were blaming Mao for starvation in their home villages and of their families. 

Political leaders in any system fear popular unrest particularly when it threatens the stability of the state (and of their own power). In a country with flawed or underdeveloped institutions—which China suffers from despite its extraordinary rate of economic growth—the risk of popular unrest mutating into violent upheavals is particularly great. Historically, widespread food insecurity mutating into mass starvation has often led to political revolutions: Any state is at risk when it fails to ensure its own people eat. If the Chinese economy continues to slow over the next few years and unemployment rises too much and too rapidly—and given there is a limited Chinese social safety net to feed a hungry population—the risk of uprisings in China is not as farfetched as some may think, and then the military may intervene in unpredictable ways as it threatened to do in China in the early 1960s. Or the new generation of technocratic leadership under pressure may become more aggressive in their foreign and defense policies to satisfy the rising Neo-Communist movement. The Neo-Communist insurgency may have lost the first battle for China's future, but it will not be the last.

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