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.