A smaller club of Chinese leaders isn't good news for China or the world

10 October 2012

Sometimes when you follow Chinese politics, you experience moments of deep confusion, not about the obvious things, like the opacity of the system and its continuing Byzantine qualities, even into the 21st century, but about the ways in which issues which you thought had been consigned to history make unexpected comebacks.

The case of Bo Xilai and the accusations rained down on his head since the formal announcement of his expulsion from the Communist Party at the end of last month is a case in point. Surely the days of all-out attacks on every aspect of a person's character - from their private lives and conduct in public office to the behaviour of their relatives and assistants - belonged to the period of court politics in the Mao and Deng periods? But even in the era of building up scientific socialism and greater rule of law, lurid full-frontal attacks on politicians who are deemed to have erred still occur.

Attacking Bo for failure to control his subordinates and for trying to cover up the involvement of his wife in murder is one thing. Accusing him of corruption is another. But was it really necessary to put in the prurient line about his involvement in "indecent relations with women" which appeared in the Xinhua announcement? And in the male-dominated world of elite Chinese politics, how many of the current leaders would really hold up to the moral test on corruption and concupiscence, if not for themselves, then at least for the networks around them that they have to take responsibility for?

A slightly less dramatic example of turning back history is the reoccurrence of the annual Beidaihe meetings, one of which was reportedly held by the party elite and the Politburo in the late summer, and from which rumours started to emanate about possible Politburo Standing Committee line-ups to be formalised at the upcoming 18th party congress. Beidaihe had been beloved of leaders in the Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping eras, and had remained an event on the annual political calendar under Jiang Zemin. But Hu Jintao, with his ethos of collective leadership and Politburo study sessions and away days, seemed to have let this tradition pass, perhaps figuring it was one of the easy ways to make his time as leader of the party a little different from his predecessor.

To have a Beidaihe gathering figure in preparations for the transition to the 5th generation leadership seems anachronistic, as though we are in the wrong decade. Is this just because it is only by the seaside that the apparently still highly influential Jiang can be put in a good enough mood to sign off on the lists for promotion?

Far more significant, however, is the report that the Standing Committee of the Politburo will reduce from the current nine to seven people. There is no cast-iron rule in the party constitution which says exactly how many people there need to be in the party's top decision-making body, and historically its membership has risen from five under Deng, to seven under Jiang, and further expanded to nine under Hu in 2002.

Reducing this group would be significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it would show that the power elite in China is not expanding, but diminishing in size. It means that a country of over 1.3 billion people, with the world's second-biggest economy, will be run by an executive body of only seven people. The relative powers of these people will, in theory at least, be far greater than their nine predecessors.

Greater delegation might be expected under a reforming Communist Party during an era when it is likely to be facing greater complexity in governance, not least because of major socio-political challenges as well as economic ones as it travels towards being a middle-income country by 2020. Concentrating power in even fewer hands seems a retrogressive step.

Beyond this there is the issue of structure. More by a process of gradual evolution than particular design, over the last two decades each slot in the Politburo Standing Committee has become associated with a specific area of responsibility. The first ranked position belongs to the party general secretary and president. The second is for the chair of the National People's Congress; the third the premier of the State Council; the fourth, the head of the party's United Front Work Department and chair of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference; the fifth, the head of the party's propaganda department, and so on. Reducing the size of the membership of the standing committee will cut across this process, pushing some policy areas together, and undermining a sound governance precedent.

There is only one reason why there might need to be a smaller standing committee, and that is control. One of the theories, as rumours of a reduction to seven members started to emerge during the summer, was that this was driven by current party boss Hu Jintao's desire to control the new membership even after his retirement, and that would be clearly easier with only seven, rather than nine, to keep on a leash.

Another consideration was that this was a way to rein in the security services, seen as growing in influence, with their voice relegated to the full Politburo, and ultimate responsibility for their direction passing to someone who would also have other areas of policy concern.

All of these reasons for reducing the size of the Politburo Standing Committee have some justification. But at the end of the day, an elite body with seven rather than nine members is a backward step. If anything, the complexity of governing contemporary China, and the huge burdens taken on by an already greatly overstretched elite, would give reason for an increase in the size of the standing committee, not its reduction.

If seven people do indeed walk out to acclaim at the end of the 18th party congress now scheduled for next month, it'll be the victory of short-term power politics over longer-term thinking about solutions for the sustainable deployment of power in China. And, for that reason, this seemingly obscure little example of returning to the past should worry us all.

Kerry Brown and David Goodman are both professors of Chinese politics at the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

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