China Stands out in 2012's Leadership Transitions

By Feldman, Noah | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 28, 2012 | Go to article overview

China Stands out in 2012's Leadership Transitions


Feldman, Noah, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


The year 2012 will go into the history books as one of contrasting transitions. China's five- year cycle for Communist Party congresses and leadership turnover overlapped with the United States's four-year electoral calendar. And if that once-in-20-years coincidence wasn't enough, Egypt's rocky shift from dictatorship to democracy continues to remind us of what transition looks like in the absence of a predictable institutional framework.

Five-year plans were nothing new -- the Chinese had inherited them from the Soviets -- but top leadership change didn't follow that regular clock. Neither the oscillations of power that accompanied the Cultural Revolution nor the Tiananmen upheavals (both before and after the events of June 4, 1989) followed a predictable calendar.

Although the generation of Deng Xiaoping officially "retired" in 1992, no one thought this meant its members would actually relinquish political authority. In short, China was still ruled as a quasi-dictatorship. As a result, it was plagued by dictatorship- style uncertainty about who would come to power next, when, and how.

Over the past two decades, the situation has changed fundamentally. Gradually, after Deng's death, it has become normal for China's leaders to stand aside when their decade in office is done. As a result, observers in China and outside can now speculate with some confidence about who will come to power and when. Everyone knew that Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang would form the center of the new administration more than two years before they assumed office.

At the same time, the selection of officials throughout the Communist Party apparatus increasingly takes account of performance, not only loyalty to party discipline. Although recent studies suggest -- unsurprisingly -- that the meritocracy is far from perfect, it is broadly understood that the party members who specialize in the selection process try to advance cadres' careers based on a mix of their talents, accomplishments, networks and commitment to the party.

Indeed, it is reasonable to infer that China's most senior leadership engaged in a remarkable experiment. Through the system of internal selection and generational turnover, the party is trying to solve the problem of transitions without relying either on democratic elections or pure hereditary power. …

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