Some have taken the extraordinary dismissal of Bo Xilai, the controversial Politburo member and party secretary from Chongqing, as a sign that the transition of power in China is in trouble. On the contrary, it shows that the process has matured and is working as it needs to.
Vice President Xi Jinping, who is slated to be approved as general secretary of the Communist Party in the fall and as president the following March, will be the first leader not chosen peremptorily by China’s prior leaders. Rather, he was selected through a broader polling of party officials. While neither transparent nor anonymous, the process is a big advance in China’s long march toward “intraparty democracy.”
China is an oligarchy, not a dictatorship, and ultimate authority will not be vested individually with Xi, but collectively with the Politburo’s Standing Committee, which has nine members. Everything in China reports to one of these nine. Xi will be first among equals, but equals the nine are, and together they have the final say on policy.
This explains the intense focus on the firing of Bo, because it was assumed he would become a member of the standing committee in the leadership shuffle. Media savvy, Bo had built a name for himself promoting the “Chongqing model,” a leftist-populist mixture of strong state, Maoist paeans (“Red songs”), crackdown on crime, equality over productivity and redistribution of wealth.
It was never that simple. Even had he reached his peak, Bo would not have ranked in the standing committee’s top half. Moreover, some of his purported backers did not share his leftist views. Elite politics in China is not simplistic and one-dimensional. Loyalties run on personal relationships as well as political philosophies, and coalitions wax and wane around specific issues.
While many people praised Bo for jailing corrupt officials (even for executing them) and for reversing garish economic disparity, many officials worried about the revival of political mass movements and the potential for chaos. The Cultural Revolution, China’s decade-long descent into ideological madness that crushed millions, hovers like an unexorcised demon.
Following the bizarre “visit” last month to a U.S. Consulate by Wang Lijun, Chongqing’s vice mayor and Bo Xilai’s righthand man in the fight against crime, Bo was fired. Irrespective of Bo’s ultimate fate, the political fallout is unambiguous: The leftist-statist “Chongqing model” has collapsed. This will become clear as standing committee slots are secured by reformers. Of the committee’s nine members, all will have run large geographic regions and/or ministries, and six or seven will have led at least two provinces or major municipalities. All will have worked with Western business chiefs and other important foreign leaders.
Like his colleagues, Xi is not given to radical change. Not incidentally, following the Bo tumult, Xi called for “purity” among officials and admonished senior comrades not to “seek fame and fortune.” Major decisions, he wrote, “should be decided according to collective wisdom and strict procedure.”
Xi has run every level of government: village, county, city, province. He led three dynamic regions — Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, and Shanghai — that were by population, economic vitality and social complexity the equivalent of three European nations.
Xi differs from his colleagues by the travails of his youth: His revolutionary hero father, Xi Zhongxun, was purged and humiliated by Mao Zedong for 16 years. As a teenager Xi Jinping was packed off to a poor, remote mountain village where he spent six years chopping hay, reaping wheat and herding sheep. He lived in a cave house.
Xi was strengthened by the harsh experience. Although a “princeling” — the offspring of a political leader — Xi is known for a common man’s touch. He has said, “Many of my practical ideas stem from my life during that period, which has influenced me every minute, even today. To truly understand common folk and society is fundamental.”
Characteristically cautious, Xi told me when I met him in 2006, “We should not overestimate our accomplishments or indulge ourselves in our achievements.” He urged China to see “the gap between where we are and where we have to go.” To learn the best practices from abroad to adapt at home, Xi has visited 47 countries.
Xi advised me that “to understand our dedication to revitalize our country, one should appreciate the pride Chinese people take in our ancient civilization.” We “made great contributions to world civilization and enjoyed long-term prosperity,” he said, “then suffered national weakness, oppression, humiliation. Our deep self-motivation is rooted in our patriotism and pride.”
One could see this determined mind-set during Xi’s trip last month to America, for which my colleague Adam Zhu and I prepared with Xi’s senior staff. Known for his disdain of “empty talk,” Xi chided his staff: “Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. Tell me what you really think.” Reflecting his view that engaging the world is not just a matter of meeting other leaders, Xi’s U.S. visit had a clear tripartite structure: diplomacy in Washington, people in Iowa, and business in Los Angeles. Throughout the trip, Xi was a man at ease — initiating spirited conversations, offering firm handshakes. He was having a grand time.
Xi’s motto is: “Be proud, not complacent. Motivated, not pompous. Pragmatic, not erratic.” Comfortable with authority, Xi manifests none of the air of a high official impressed by his own status. Of course, Xi upholds the primacy of the party. Yet, recognizing China’s “earthshaking change,” he advises officials to embrace even greater change — to “emancipate our minds and overcome the attitude of being satisfied with the status quo, the inertia of conservative and complacent thinking, the fear of difficulties, and timid thinking.”
Although some would have Xi quicken reform, political as well as economic, he will likely move slowly. Stability will continue to be China’s touchstone. One challenge for Xi is high expectations. A senior aide confided, “Xi is ready, but it won’t be easy.”
Where exactly Xi and his fellow members on the standing committee will take China is not obvious. What is clear is that they will move forward with reform step by pragmatic step, not backward to Maoist nostalgia or cult of personality populism.
By Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an international corporate strategist and investment banker and a longtime adviser to China’s leaders. He is the author of How China’s Leaders Think and The Man Who Changed China, a biography of former President Jiang Zemin.