Opinion

Ian Bremmer

What do we know about China’s new leadership?

Ian Bremmer
Nov 28, 2012 21:19 UTC

As China obsessives know, it is tough to read tea leaves when the water is as opaque as that surrounding China’s Politburo. In the wake of the Chinese leadership transition, we’re left to sift through the news in search of answers. There is plenty we do not know about the process or what its outcome will bring, but when it comes to underlying themes we can understand, it is possible to make some predictions.

Start with solidarity. In the most telling example of Chinese political unity, the Politburo, the elite political body that makes all of China’s major decisions, went from nine people to seven to consolidate control of the political process. The Communist Party is now more unified than before and is less likely to tolerate dissent from within. The stability of the Communist Party is paramount. All else will fall in line.

Note what happens to those who don’t. If the Bo Xilai incident demonstrated anything, it’s that, in China, nails that stick up will be hammered down. There is no room for leaders who stray from the party platform.

Need more evidence that power is being consolidated? Hu Jintao recently surrendered his military position sooner than expected so Xi Jinping, the incoming president, could have more control. Li Keqiang, Xi’s incoming deputy, got the nod to run the economy rather than Wang Qishan ‑ the most senior and noted market reformer of the lot. Three of five of the remaining standing committee members seem to be protégés of former President Jiang Zemin, a sign that the leadership is looking to past success as much as to the future. Again, it’s about consolidation—the easiest way to prevent another Bo is to limit the number of possible Bos.

This new regime will govern a China that is increasingly two different countries. On the coast, the country is developed, with the amenities of a post-industrialized society. In the countryside, China is still a developing country, with hundreds of millions of people living in poverty. In 2010, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, there was a nearly threefold difference in per capita incomes between coastal China and inland China. Likewise, China now has more income inequality than the United States, making China 27th in the world overall.

In Syria, a rare Chinese foray into foreign policy

Ian Bremmer
Nov 20, 2012 15:14 UTC

This month, a curious thing happened in the annals of diplomacy. A country offered up a peace plan to put an end to a seemingly endless civil war in Syria. This country was not one of the usual foreign policy suspects — it was not the United States, it was not in Europe, and it wasn’t Syria’s neighbor. It was a country that has no real experience in playing the world’s policeman. But, seeing a world filled with retired officers, it decided to try on the uniform for itself. China has taken another step into the spotlight of the world stage.

This is what happens in a G-Zero world — a world without any specific country or bloc of countries in charge. China has long been content to watch world events play out and then react, trusting that another country would step in to put volatile situations to rest. But that’s not happening with the Syrian conflict and its spillover into the broader Middle East. Americans feel that the issue doesn’t affect them enough to intervene. Europeans, as a Union, don’t seem to be particularly interested, even if some smaller countries are. And with those powers on the sidelines, suddenly the Chinese have a much bigger problem — a civil war that could metastasize into regional instability. The Chinese have far too much at stake in Iraq and Iran for that to happen: 11 percent of China’s oil imports come from Iran, and it is on track to be the chief importer of Iraqi oil by 2030.

And so China stepped in, offering a peace plan. The details — cease-fire, a committee that negotiates a political solution to the war, etc. — are not as important as the plan’s mere existence. It’s symptomatic of China’s new approach, one that Hu Jintao hinted at in one of his final addresses as Chinese president. He said China would “get more actively involved in international affairs, (and) play its due role of a major responsible country.” In the wake of downturns in the West, there is a new diplomatic structure emerging. China is determined to be one of its architects.

Rocking the vote may not rock the boat

Ian Bremmer
Nov 6, 2012 19:59 UTC

This week — chads willing — Americans will finally put an end to four years’ worth of electoral Sturm und Drang. Only then can the country begin to ask the question that matters much more than who will win: Will anything change? On foreign policy, it’s increasingly clear that the answer is, for the most part, no.

Likewise, this week — politburo willing — the Chinese will finally put an end to a year of bureaucratic angst. The powers that be hope that once a new president is installed, the Communist Party can put months of scandal behind it (Bo Xilai’s trial and Wen Jiabao’s family fortune, to name just a couple) and start to answer the question they’re most eager to put to bed: Will anything change in a new regime? On foreign policy, it’s increasingly clear that the answer is — you guessed it — for the most part, no.

In a volatile world, American and Chinese foreign policies appear, at least for the next few years, set in stone.

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