The impending convening of the 2012 Beidaihe conference in China is a meeting of global significance. China is now the world’s second-largest economy and has a military that has benefited from two decades of double-digit growth. The decisions made in Beidaihe will affect us for the next 10 years and beyond. It is important that we take a look up from our own election and take note.
The conference, held at the seaside resort district of the same name, is the equivalent of a “smoke-filled room” where senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders hammer out the Party (and eventually governmental) leadership roster before its formal announcement at the Party Congress and the National People’s Congress, respectively.
This year’s conference is confronted with several major issues. The most important is the composition of the new Party leadership. As Hu Jintao steps down from the role of Party General Secretary, there is little doubt that Xi Jinping will replace him as Party leader. But this is almost the only certainty that outside observers are assured of. For example, it is unclear whether the new Politburo Standing Committee (PSC)—the select group of senior leaders drawn from the Political Bureau of the Party Standing Committee and constituting the real leadership of the CCP—will have nine members, as it has since 1992, or whether it will shrink to seven members.
There are a number of reports that the PSC will shrink in order to reduce the amount of infighting and jockeying for positions, especially with the fall of Bo Xilai. Less jockeying means more stability, and fewer surprises in international affairs. Yet a smaller PSC also implies that people who might be expected to be on the PSC (such as Guangdong Party Secretary and presumed market-leaning reformer Wang Yang) may be disappointed as well.
The uncertainty regarding even the number of PSC members, in turn, is a reflection of larger questions regarding the balance of power between the “princelings” (the offspring of senior civilian and military Party officials) and the “tuanpai” (the “self-made bureaucrats” associated with Hu Jintao). That there remains so much uncertainty about the composition of the Party leadership as the Party Congress looms suggests serious turmoil at the top. It may well be that, in the absence of a senior Party leader of unquestioned authority (e.g., Deng Xiaoping), the top Party cadres are deadlocked.
Furthermore, not only is Party leadership at stake, but also the composition of the senior military leadership. The Beidaihe conference typically also determines the composition of the incoming Central Military Commission (CMC), the group that actually runs China’s military.
The issue is more pressing this year, as most of the current members of the CMC will have to retire due to age. The new leaders will likely reflect the direction of China’s military modernization for the coming decade. It also remains unclear to outside observers whether Xi will also assume the role of chairman of the CMC in 2012 or have to wait two years, much as Hu did when Jiang Zemin insisted on remaining as CMC chairman from 2002 to 2004.
China’s current foreign profile appears to be governed by drift and inertia, spiked with growing nationalist tendencies. Negative trends—such as Chinese aggression in what it calls its “near seas” but what American’s consider international waters—are likely to continue or even escalate without due deliberation and course correction.
The drift away from the market that has characterized Chinese economic policy for nearly a decade continues with apparent disregard for the long-term impact it is having on the Chinese economy and the global economy. Meanwhile, despite Chinese leadership claims of a good relationship with the U.S., fundamental policy differences from Syria to the South China Sea hold the potential for a deterioration between the two major global economies and military powers.
The Beidaihe conference is essentially make-or-break for resolving these issues. It bears very close watching by Americans.