One of the most curious facts about China’s current leadership is is comprised almost entirely by engineers. This thought-provoking Facebook post by Kaiser Kuo reminds us that the academic disciplines of the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo are: hydraulic engineering, electron tube engineering, geological engineering, electrical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, geophysical engineering, chemical engineering, and law.
By contrast, here is the distribution of the seven men Reuters reports will comprise China’s next Standing Committee: chemical engineering, law, history, math, teaching, economics, and economics. As a caveat, Kaiser notes that Zhang Dejiang’s economic degree came from a university in North Korea, so he probably isn’t going to be quoting Milton Friedman anytime soon. But this change seems significant. Will it have any effect on policy?
Deng Xiaoping’s accession to power in 1978 transformed China’s government from being primarily ideological to being primarily technocratic, and engineering seemed to be an appropriate background for dealing with China’s immense developmental challenges. Much of the work of the Chinese government was simply building the country up from its destitute, agricultural base. With China now the world’s second-largest economy, though, a government run by social scientists may be better equipped to manage the country’s increasingly complex relationship with the outside world. An engineer may know how to build a railroad, but can he also manage a central bank? Perhaps yielding to economists and lawyers is the change China needs.
However, while the changing academic backgrounds of China’s incoming leaders presents an intriguing story line, there’s less there than meets the eye. China’s top political leaders are all “career politicians” rather than actual working professionals, and reaching the pinnacle of the Communist Party requires years in the trenches. President Hu Jintao, for instance, made his reputation as a no-nonsense Party chief in Tibet in the late 1980s and other leaders similarly got their start in minor outposts far from the center of power. The idea that an ordinary citizen can vault to high political office in a short period of time is totally alien to China, as I discovered when Chinese friends found the idea of a “Governor Schwarzenegger” totally incredulous.* Not having popular elections frees the Communist Party from worrying about disruptive upstart figures of the sort that routinely win elections in places like The Philippines, Haiti, or Argentina.
*To be fair, so did a lot of other people.
As a result I’m skeptical that China’s new leaderswill govern any differently simply because of their social science backgrounds. Political constraints within the government prevent any one leader from exercising too much influence, and what one chose to study as a young man tends to matter very little in later life. When George W. Bush was running for president in 2000 for instance, much was made of the fact that he attended business school rather than law school and would thus govern in the style of the “first MBA president”. When all was said and done, Bush’s graduate school experience turned out to be one of the least meaningful aspects of his presidency. The same, I suspect, will be true of Xi Jinping and his Standing Committee colleagues.…
Princeton Professor Aaron Friedberg, one of Mitt Romney’s principal advisers on China, has an op-ed claiming that President Obama’s China policy is a massive failure. Basically, his arguments are that a) Obama’s strategic pivot to Asia is seen as aggressive by China, but b) China still thinks the US is in decline and weak, because c) the US cannot compel China to do its bidding in North Korea and Iran, and d) China seems to insist, oddly enough, on having its own relationships with other countries. President Romney, on the other hand, will rectify these problems by balancing the budget and reducing the US national debt. He also will compel China to behave more in line with US interests. How? Friedberg doesn’t say, but I’m sure we’ll find out once Romney wins the election, since that seems to be how he reacts whenever asked for specifics.
About the only concrete policy proposal we’ve heard from Governor Romney himself is to label China a currency manipulator on his first day of office. In theory, this will open up the possibility that the US will penalize China for its malfeasance. In practice, this will accomplish nothing except to annoy China and elicit an outraged communique warning Washington not to meddle in Chinese affairs. The renminbi will continue to rise against the dollar, albeit slowly. China will continue to finance US debt. American consumers will continue to buy cheap Chinese exports. As Kurt Vonnegut might say, so it goes.
For all intents and purposes, US policy toward China will scarcely change no matter who wins the election. Friedberg no doubt knows this, but as Romney’s “China guy” he still has to pretend otherwise. In general, though, his op-ed refuses to consider that China might have different strategic interests to the US, or that an American presidential administration has the tools to change these interests even if he wanted to. This is a dangerous viewpoint in general, and one that is unfortunately prevalent in US politics.…
President Obama and Mitt Romney will debate for the third and final time tonight, focusing exclusively on foreign policy. As usual, I expect most of the questions to be about the broader Middle East, particularly Libya, Syria, and Iran. China is too important not to be mentioned, but I suspect that most of the questions will revolve around Mitt Romney’s silly assertion that he will label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. I hope I’m proven wrong.
If I were to moderate this debate- and time were of no essence- these would be the questions I would ask about China:
- Governor Romney, you have said that you will label China a currency manipulator on your first day in office. What do you expect this move will accomplish? Aren’t you afraid of economic retaliation from China?
- China is widely expected to surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy some time in the next fifteen years. Would it be acceptable for China to become the world’s pre-eminent military power? If not, then why?
- Some have argued that China’s continued stockpiling of US debt is a reflection of our economy’s underlying strength, not weakness. What would your response to this assertion be?
- Would you be willing to cut or reduce military ties with Taiwan in exchange for Beijing’s diplomatic cooperation on North Korea?
- President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton played down China’s human rights abuses during her first visit to the country in 2009. Has this approach been successful?
- Should Japan be permitted to revise its constitution to re-instate offensive military capability in light of China’s rise?
- Since Richard Nixon first went to China in 1972, successive American presidents have maintained a policy of engagement with the country. However, China remains an authoritarian state with a dismal human rights record. Is it time to re-think this strategy?
Some of these questions are more suitable for graduate school blue book exams than a presidential debate, sure. But it’d be nice to hear what the two major candidates for president think on the more abstract, long-term issues facing the Sino-American relationship. Instead, we’ll get the usual triviality. Oh well- at least it’s better than the lack of public political discourse in China itself.…
The New York Times has a good piece discussing how difficult it will be to loosen the grip of state-owned enterprises in China’s economy. Meanwhile, over at the Wall Street Journal‘s China Real Time Report, Bob Davis cites an unexpected argument for China’s continued growth. Both pieces are worth reading and have more to do with each other than they seem to at first glance.
The standard bearish position on China’s economy is this: as China’s capital stock grows and returns to investment diminish, inefficiencies and corruption in the country’s “state capitalist” system will threaten to tear the economy apart at its seams. In order to ensure a smooth transition to a low-growth model, China has to institute significant economic reforms, such as encouraging the growth of the private sector and domestic consumption. Unfortunately, these reforms are unlikely because of the way incentives are arranged in the Communist Party government. Therefore, China is “trapped”.
The WSJ piece points out why this day of reckoning may be a ways off. In the poorer, inland provinces, China’s capital stock is so minimal that the economy is still mired in an earlier stage of development, so there remains significant room for growth using the old state-capitalist investment model. The still-tremendous returns to investment, therefore, are likely to continue to mask inefficiencies for the foreseeable future. For all the talk of how China over-invests in infrastructure, any visit to rural Yunnan or Sichuan reveals just how much more work there is to be done.
China’s economy is often compared to the United States, but a better analogy might be the European Union. Provinces like Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu are akin to France, Germany, and Britain*, but provinces like Guizhou and Gansu are more like Romania and Bulgaria. China is less a “single market” than a collection of fragmented region in which local political leaders play a major role. The gap between, say, France and Bulgaria is far wider than the gap between New York and Mississippi. But the gap between Guangdong and Yunnan is much wider than either. Overall, that fact is less a case for optimism than a belief that China’s problems won’t reach critical mass for a long time.
* Just to be clear, I don’t mean Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu are as wealthy or developed as France, Germany, and Britain but rather that they represent an analogous role within the wider Chinese economy.
One of the most memorable moments of the 2nd presidential debate was when President Obama scolded Mitt Romney for his business dealings with China. “You’re the last person who’ll get tough on China,” Obama zinged. As an unabashed Obama supporter, the line thrilled me- I was delighted that finally, the president was lashing out at Romney and forcing the Republican to play defense. But, sadly, the small voice in my head that cares about policy recoiled. For all of Mitt Romney’s sins, outsourcing jobs to China ranks pretty close to the bottom of the list. The transfer of manufacturing jobs from the United States to China, blamed so often for our economic decline, has actually been a net positive for both countries.
The unemployment crisis in the United States has many causes. There’s financial under-regulation for starters, but also a badly skewed tax code, absurdly lenient mortgage lending, and, more esoterically, the persistent lack of middle-class wage growth that has led so many Americans to make risky financial bets. In a perfect world, both presidential candidates would campaign exclusively on fixing these problems and restoring the American economy. But elections are won on politics, not policy, and a byproduct of that reality is cheap demagoguery on China.
Politics go both ways, of course. In China, the Communist Party attributes American complaints about currency manipulation as an unvarnished desire to hurt the country’s feelings. China’s leadership knows better, of course, but understands that maintaining a sense of national victimization is essential to keeping its grip on power. American politicians find it useful to remind struggling voters that there are factories full of Chinese workers doing their old jobs for a small fraction of the pay. And, whether or not half these factories are now located in Vietnam or the Philippines or Mexico or wherever, pointing a finger at China resonates far more deeply since China is seen as the United States’ primary rival on the international stage.…
The New York Times‘ obituary of Norodom Sihanouk, the former Cambodian king who died yesterday at the age of 89, is fascinating and well worth a read. During his reign, Norodom cultivated a close relationship with China, the country in which he spent much of his time in exile. China, alas, factored into the most controversial part of Sihanouk’s life:
Convinced that the United States had been behind the overthrow, King Sihanouk allied himself with the Khmer Rouge at the urging of his Chinese patrons, giving the Cambodian Communists his prestige and enormous popularity. Their victory in 1975 brought the ruthless Pol Pot to power, with King Sihanouk serving, for the first year, as the figurehead president until he was placed under house arrest and fell into a deep depression. Over the next four years, the Khmer Rouge regime led to the death of 1.7 million people and nearly destroyed the country.
Criticized throughout his life for these dramatic shifts in allegiances, King Sihanouk said he followed only one course in politics: “the defense of the independence, the territorial integrity and the dignity of my country and my people.”
In fact, he skillfully manipulated the great powers, usually with the support of China, to ensure his survival as well as his country’s independence.
(Emphasis added). In recognition of this very close relationship, China noted Sihanouk’s death with effusive press coverage and a telegram of condolence from President Hu Jintao. The two countries continue to have a close economic and diplomatic relationship today, with Cambodia refusing to cooperate over territorial issues in the South China Sea at an ASEAN summit meeting in July in apparent deference to China. In return, China has pledged $500 million in soft loans to the impoverished Southeast Asian country.
I don’t think anyone can blame the Chinese alone for the Khmer Rouge, the radical Communist movement whose reign of terror almost completely destroyed the country. The secret U.S. bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War also had a fair amount to do with it, as well as forces within the country itself. Nor is there anything untoward about the present relationship between China and Cambodia. Yet the recent history between the two countries is a wonderful example of how China’s vaunted “non-interference” policy is nothing more than convenient fiction. Like all other powerful states, Beijing seeks influence along its periphery and meddles in the domestic affairs of other countries. China may be indifferent to the political composition of its allies and trading partners, but it certainly pays attention to what policies these countries pursue.
The obituary of Sihanouk says less about the man himself than about the fact that, as leader of Cambodia, he was largely at the mercy of powerful outside forces. Such is life in small, strategically important countries.…
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.
But first, an obligatory baseball note. Yesssssssssssssssss!
- The U.S. presidential election will be held on Tuesday, November 6th. The 18th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China, as noted below, will begin on Thursday, November 8th. This is the first time then in very many years that the two largest economies in the world will host major political events in the same week. The U.S. election marks the culmination of years of campaigning, television advertisements, stump speeches, debates, and the entire circus that is American politics. The Chinese event, meanwhile, will occur entirely out of public view. The winner of the U.S. election will be announced at the earliest possible moment by a feverish group of televised talking heads. The formation of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s highest governing body, will be known only when the members appear in pre-determined order to salute the country. The differences between the two systems aren’t exactly unprecedented; after all, a similar contrast existed during the Cold War. But the outcome of that week in November will be an interesting glimpse into what decisions both countries make.
- Bill Bishop’s Sinocism e-mails are indispensable for knowing what’s going on in China these days. Therefore, I was pleased to note that the New York Times Dealbook will be publishing a weekly version of the e-mails. Here’s a link to the first one. For a full list of key China-related blogs and Twitter feeds, please see the “recommended reads” section above.
- Tonight marks the lone debate between Vice President Joseph Biden and Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan. How much will they talk about China? It’s hard to say. China-bashing was mainly absent in the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, but Romney did get in a few jabs about how we should stop relying on China to pay for certain government programs. Put that way, one could think China was holding America economically hostage. The truth is of course far more complicated, as China needs the U.S. just as much (if not more) than the U.S. needs China. Such nuances, though, aren’t suitable for the febrile world of televised presidential debates. Vague references to the Chinese threat do, however, work well as “political red meat”. Expect more of it going forward.
- Last week Harvard Business Review published a piece about moving around without losing your roots, something which any expatriate in China can relate to. These days it’s never been easier to live in a different country, learn a different language, and travel the whole world. But at what cost? Is having a firm sense of ethnic or national identity important? Oddly enough, I never felt more American than when I was in China, but I did feel a strange, disorienting confusion when I moved back here. I don’t feel the slightest remorse for having spent so many years out of the country, but I do tell people now that I’m tired of “moving around”. It takes its toll.
On Monday, I wrote the following regarding the fate of Bo Xilai:
Most likely, the Party will wait until after the conclusion of the 18th Party Congress- expected to be held next month- to deal with Bo. Even then, Bo may remain in limbo since Beijing will have its hands full with the political transition, a process fraught with tension in China even in the best of times. The Party may prefer to keep the status quo until the issue recedes from public memory. If there’s one thing China does well, it’s disappearing inconvenient personnel.
Hopefully nobody put any money on my prediction. This morning, the Communist Party leadership took action:
China’s rulers have made a forceful show of unity after the country’s biggest political scandal in decades, kicking Bo Xilai out of the Communist party on myriad charges that could lead to the death penalty for the disgraced former high-flying politician.
The announcement that the former party secretary of Chongqing has been accused of taking bribes, improper sexual relations with multiple women and other unspecified crimes comes six months after he was purged following revelations that his wife had murdered a British businessman.
We also learned that the 18th Party Congress will begin on November 8th, not in October as I had previously speculated. It’s quite unusual for the two largest economies in the world, with vastly different political systems, to be planning political transitions in the same week.
Some recent changes to the site, which is still very much a work-in-progress…
- I’ve added a section to the top called “recommended reads”, which lists all the China-related blogs and Twitter feeds that I pay attention to. This list is by no means exhaustive, so if you think of any that I should add please send me an e-mail at matthew.schiavenza (at) gmail.com. A section for Chinese-language bloggers is forthcoming but recommendations more than welcome!
- Back in 2011, I interviewed several of my friends about the cities they called home. These results, which I posted serially on the blog, are now located under “city series” on the front page. More of these to come, by the way!
- A link to my resume is now available next to the “about” on the front page.