Assessing the Power Shift in China

China is in the midst of a shift of power, with new leaders expected to be named in the autumn and a new president and premier taking office next spring. Chinese politics is typically opaque but every so often the outside world catches a glimpse of what is going on behind the scenes. The unfolding drama surrounding disgraced Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai is just one such episode. In a series of articles in YaleGlobal, three China hands – Cheng Li of Brookings Institution, former US ambassador Stapleton Roy, and University of California, San Diego, professor Susan Shirk – consider the power shift that is playing out in China and its implications.

Cheng Li believes that Bo Xilai’s downfall could have positive consequences for China’s political development:

Although these shifts in power have caused new tensions in the PRC’s governance and a sense of uncertainty, viewed from a broader perspective they should be considered encouraging developments. Factional checks and balances within the leadership, dynamic interest groups, and the widely-shared perception of China as a rising power could all become factors in a democratic transition. In the near future, the focus of China analysts should not only be on how effectively the CCP leadership uses legal procedures to deal with the Bo case, but also whether the leadership can boldly adopt more electoral mechanisms in its selection of senior leaders and search for new sources of legitimacy.

Stapleton Roy, meanwhile, writes that the US should plan on China becoming stronger and more prosperous:

We should constantly bear in mind that China’s challenge to the United States is of an entirely different order than that posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The USSR never posed a serious threat of overtaking the United States in terms of the size or vitality of its economy. In China’s case, it has for an extended period been advancing in multiple areas that contribute to comprehensive national strength. There is no question that China faces daunting problems in sustaining its rapid growth, but US policy should not be based on expectations that China’s structural weaknesses will prevent it from becoming stronger and more prosperous.

Finally, Susan Shirk warns that a more open selection process for its leaders will not necessarily mean that China’s continued rise will be peaceful:

Political succession has always been the Achilles heel of authoritarian systems. Bo is unlikely to be the last Chinese politician to use the media to build a public following. Trying to keep leadership competition under wraps within a black box is a losing proposition. More open competition for power within the party could open up new possibilities for reform that would have positive spillovers for China’s foreign relations. But it’s no guarantee of a China with the political legitimacy and institutional wherewithal to rise peacefully.

What are your thoughts on the shifting power equation in China?

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  1. Danny

     /  23/04/2012

    Though the dust hasn’t settled on Bo’s issue in China, it has already be portrayed as a significant sign of power shift in China, not only because of the important position of Bo in Communist Party, but also due to the sensitivity of the timing when the Communist Party is going to hold its five-year congress to select a new Politburo.
    Actually, Bo’s way has long been out of line with the consensus approach of the current leading group: singing red songs, launching populist social programme, making use of anti-crime crusade, and manipulating the media to set up personal authority. All of these may remind people of Cultural Revolution.
    In my view, the oust of Bo may be a result of political division and conflicts. What really matters is not how Bo’s way collapsed, but why it could begin. Why such way of tackling social problems by political movements rather than legal process still holds in China 30 years after the reform and openning up. This may be a deeper issue China faces rather than just shift of power.

  2. Bonnie Chen

     /  29/04/2012

    In response to Danny, I don’t think Chinese people, well the students, appreciated singing red songs. In my opinion, most Chinese people don’t want to be reminded of the days of the Cultural Revolution. I also agree that Bo’s oust is a result of political division and I also don’t find the shift of power a big issue. Bo serves as an example of what could happen to other party members who step out of line, and it could just be a tactic to scare other party members to behave.

  3. Although some analysts believed that China’s succession process would be smooth, Bo Xilai’s case made many change their views or even raise the question of whether the process could take place as scheduled. In my opinion, the probability of postponing CCP’s 18th Congress is not high. The Chinese government always wants to show foreign people as well as its citizens an image of a united front so as to maintain stability and build public trust. Therefore, delaying the leadership transition, an action that will damage the image of the central government, will not be an option.

    In fact, I think Cheng Li gives a fair account of the political situation in China, especially in his first point concerning “weak leaders, strong factions”. Given that the two opposing factions which balance each other in CCP persist, even if the leaders are different after the power shift, it is likely that the changes in domestic and foreign policy will not be significant. Thus, the focus of the succession process is not on whether Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will be the upcoming leaders, it should be on the outcome of the competition between the two factions in CCP. If the two factions no long balance each other and one of them gains more influence in the party, greater changes in policies and also Sino-US relations will be expected.

  4. thesprinkler

     /  05/05/2012

    So, not to bring the Internet into this again, but it’s a topic I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about since our last class. I’m interested in the role of the Internet in this entire power shift, particularly the downfall of Bo. The Internet allows for the unbelievably rapid dissemination of information, obviously, and forces an unprecedented degree of transparency on the Chinese government and leaders, both nationally and globally. If the political situation in China can be characterized by “weak leaders, strong factions” I think we could see similar future disintegration resembling that of Bo as the Internet facilitates the exposure of individuals’ weaknesses. Though, granted, the government is notorious for manipulating the Internet to spread rumors, netizens are wise-ing up to this and beginning to see through their tactics. The government will never again be able to control information in the way it once did which will beget potentially insurmountable challenges for the opaque, united front the Chinese government is so reliant on upholding.

  5. Stephanie

     /  05/05/2012

    So…not to bring the Internet into this again, but it’s a topic I’ve been very interested in since our last class. I’m particularly interested in the role of the Internet in this power shift, specifically the downfall of Bo. Obviously, information can be disseminated with more ease and rapidity than ever before, and this has forced an unprecedented amount of transparency and accountability on the Chinese government, both nationally and globally. If the central government can be characterized by “weak leaders, strong factions,” I think we stand to see further disintegrations resembling Bo’s as the Internet makes it easier to expose and publicize the faults, wrongdoings and weaknesses of politicians. Though, granted, the central government is notorious for attempting to manipulate the Internet to their advantage to spread their own rumors, evidence has it that netizens are wise-ing up. The government is losing control and will never regain the monopoly on information and knowledge that it once possessed. This can only bring up potentially insurmountable obstacles for a government that is so reliant on opaqueness and apparent unity as a source of power.

  6. Stephanie raises some interesting points, but I would like to point out that a large amount of data suggests that Netizens actually prioritise the maintenance of stability to a greater extent than non- internet users. In a paper for another module, I attribute this largely to the promulgation of ultra-nationalism by the CCP through the internet, turning the medium into a tool of ideological homogenisation (cf ‘The 50-cent Party’, etc.).

    Far from presenting an “insurmountable obstacle” to a government that is concerned with unity, then, the internet may increase unity through the tried-and-tested glue of patriotism and nationalism.

    The claim that the internet weeds out wrongdoings and corruption is of course absolutely correct, but this is not a threat to the government per se, I would argue. In fact, Xiao has argued that this aspect of the internet is beneficial to the CCP by bridging the ‘information gap’ between local and central levels as concerns corruption among grassroots cadres, etc.

    In short: all power to the Netizens, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

    As for Bo, I’m withholding judgement until the issue untangles.


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