Xi Jinping Is Less Important Than You Think
Time Magazine has a cover story (subscription required) profiling Xi Jinping, China’s putative next president and the man the magazine has cleverly dubbed “the leader of the unfree world”*. The piece, written by Beijing bureau chief Hannah Beech, nicely lays out the implications of China’s leadership transition but inflates the importance of the presidency in China’s political system. Contrary to the magazine’s assertion, I would argue that Xi’s ascension to the presidency matters even less than the result of the U.S. presidential election.
* I know this isn’t Beech’s fault, and I know that magazines like Time have to compete with the increasingly histrionic Newsweek. But leader of the unfree world? Really? This isn’t the Soviet Union, presiding over a republic with fifteen member states and satellites and allies around the world. Yes, China is the world’s largest and most important authoritarian state, but Beijing does not control an axis of dictatorships that works in tandem to thwart Washington’s international agenda. It’s time for everyone to cast aside their lazy Cold War analogies when thinking about international affairs.
China’s highest governing body is the Standing Committee of the Politburo, which at the moment consists of nine men. The two members of the Standing Committee with the most de facto authority are the President and the Prime Minister, positions currently occupied by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. However, other members of the Standing Committee are of near-equal influence. The composition of this body depends on the horse trading that goes on among varying political factions in China. These factions include princelings, typically children or descendants of elite early members of the Chinese Communist Party, and tuanpai, leaders who emerge from the powerful Communist Youth League. Resembling a sort of “balanced ticket”, China’s next President (Xi Jinping) and Prime Minister (Li Keqiang) represent the princeling and tuanpai factions, respectively. Any policy decision that emerges from Beijing will derive from extensive negotiation, just as in democratic countries.
To an American audience, the best analogy is this: imagine the Chinese leadership as a version of Supreme Court, with the President serving as the Chief Justice. Now imagine that the formation and all the activity of the Court occur in secret, and that every decision made by the Court is presented unanimously. The president (Chief Justice) is the most powerful single individual in the Chinese system, but faces enormous constraints based on the need for consensus with the other eight members. In a previous era, when China was ruled by revered men like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, individual whims mattered greatly. But since Deng’s retirement in the early 1990s, China’s leaders are, by design, bland functionaries lacking personal ambition. Even if Xi secretly harbored a desire to turn China into a giant version of Singapore, any sudden moves he’d make in that direction would come up against instant, mass opposition from his fellow committee members.
So while I’m delighted that a mainstream American publication like Time has devoted a cover story to Chinese politics, I wish that the piece would emphasize just how little personal power Xi Jinping will have when he assumes office. The real story will be the identity of the other members of the Standing Committee, for that will indicate which policy choices the Communist Party make in the coming years. Policy choices that, as Time correctly points out, will be just as important as ones made by Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.
UPDATE: A friend e-mailed to say that, while the President and Prime Minister have the most de facto authority in the Chinese system, they don’t actually have the most titular authority. I’ve amended the text to reflect this fact.