China’s welcomed strongman
China’s political agenda kicks off with annual agenda-setting events held in March: the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the National People’s Congress. The main star of the events is the prime minister. In the opening ceremony of the National People’s Congress, the country’s legislature, the prime minister reports to the ruling Communist Party the government’s plans and goals for the year. The two-hour report is aired live on TV, which means the Chinese premier is addressing not only his legislators and countrymen but the whole world.
On closing day, over 500 reporters from the domestic and foreign media are invited for a briefing and press conference on China’s governing policies. A debate often arises between the prime minister and foreign journalists. People around the world have been intrigued by this back and forth aired live by CNN. At least they were during the five years of premiership of Zhu Rongji and the 10 years of Wen Jiabao. The interest is not so big under current premier Li Keqiang. It’s not that Li is uninteresting or lacks personality. But he’s not anywhere near as fascinating as his boss, President Xi Jinping.
Xi almost commands the kind of respect given to China’s most revered leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. With his shows of strong will, he is deemed as tough as Mao. How has he managed to cut such a charismatic image for himself? Some attribute it to his heritage. He belongs to the “hongderdai,” or second generation of reds. His father was a member of the founding generation of Communist China. The descendants of the Communist nobility are innately committed to defending the legacy of the revolutionary generation.
Some also cite Xi’s sturdy personal character. He had a tough childhood and teenage years after his father was purged.
The most credible reason, though, is that the current generation in charge in China demands a strong leader and Xi was in the right place at the right time.
Each generation tries to move forward by picking up the unfinished work of the earlier generation. Deng strived to prevent the rise of another dictatorial leader like Mao. He created the Politburo so that a group of leaders could run the country on the basis of consensus. Then he introduced an unprecedented retirement system so that the elderly would give way for the next generation. When he named his successor, Jiang Zemin, he made him “the core” authority of the Politburo. Jiang did not bother to pass on such a clear-cut authority to his successor, Hu Jintao, and his lackluster performance showed it.
It is often said that during Hu’s reign, there was not one but nine leaders running the country, referring to the nine members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee. The prime minister was in charge of economic affairs and the secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection oversaw law enforcement including the police, prosecutors and courts.
Hu Angang, a professor at Tsinghua University, called this unique Chinese leadership system a collective or joint presidency and claimed it to be more democratic than the U.S. presidential system. But collective power-sharing, responsibility-sharing, and decision-making underscored the fact that Hu Jintao’s leadership could not be trusted. He never received the “core” title and never entirely escaped the shadow of Jiang even though he was president for 10 whole years. For every critical decision, Hu had to get approval from his predecessor.
During the latter part of the Hu years, the game of thrones became dirty. Premier Wen Jiabao abandoned his economic role and suddenly turned liberal and campaigned for political reform. Zhou Yongkang, who had been in charge of law and order, was busy building his own empire and fortune together with his protege Bo Xilai, who was trying to build power, wealth and mass popularity in his provincial base. Xu Caihou, a Politburo member loyal to Jiang Zemin in charge over overseeing military affairs, made a fortune by trading titles and military positions. Equal status and power only gave the members of the Politburo insatiable appetites for more power and wealth. When the king is feeble, the court can run wild.
This was when Xi Jinping made his entrance. Xi had quietly watched and seen the effects of a weak president and how it encourages excesses of the Standing Committee members. One of the first things he did as he ascended to power was to reduce the seats on the Standing Committee from nine to seven. He created several subcommittees and chaired each. And he led a sweeping anti-corruption campaign that did not exclude elderly statesmen or even senior military officials.
His very focused and unwavering drive helped to mold a strong leader’s image. People’s desires change over time. After 10 years of leadership by the enigmatic but also colorless Hu Jintao, the Chinese yearned for the exact opposite. Our society is no different. Our next leader will have to be someone who can live up to our aspirations and expectations after closely studying the weaknesses and failures of the predecessor. The collective desire of the masses can create and shape such a leader.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 1, Page 28
*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.
by You Sang-chul