Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Thoughts of China for after its 2012 power transitions 4: setting the stage for 2013 – 3

Posted in macroeconomics by Timothy Platt on November 4, 2012

This is my fourth installment in a series, in which I seek to outline and discuss some of the challenges that China’s new leadership will face as it assumes power coming out of the 18th Party Congress, with that transition formally beginning in the autumn of 2012 (see Macroeconomics and Business postings 122 and loosely following for Parts 1-3.)

I have been writing in this series about a set of challenges that China’s new leadership will face. And in the process of that I have been discussing a fundamentally underlying challenge that I would argue to be central to making all of the others so difficult to resolve: the increasingly visible fault lines in their society separating their haves from their great majority of relative have-nots. And in this I have focused on the privileges and excesses of their Party connection-favored princes and of their de facto Crown Prince Party within China’s overall Communist Party.

I have specifically focused on princes of Chinese Communist Party realm who have created real scandal and discord, and as China’s leadership and the Party as a whole approaches their once in ten years power transitions of a National Party Congress. In this, I focused by way of example on Ling Gu and his father Ling Jihua (see Part 2), and on Bo Xilai and his father Bo Yibo. And in both cases these sons have aimed a harsh spotlight on China’s claims to having a modern government and systems of law and governance in which citizens have equal and open rights, and both under law and in practice.

The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China is now set to open on November 8, 2012 and at a time when their economy is slowing and they have to present themselves to the world in the face of scandal and embarrassment from the ranks of their privileged and well-connected. And this is particularly challenging for China’s leaders, new and out-going, and for their society as a whole given the approach that their underlying culture takes towards scandal and toward disclosure of uncomfortable or embarrassing information.

And this is where these stories somewhat in the news, and much more so in social media and public discussion come to a head approaching November 8 and the days and years to follow. The heir apparent for China’s top leadership position coming out of their upcoming Party Congress is Xi Jinping, son of Xi Zhongxun and a true prince of the realm too.

I initially wrote about Xi Jinping in the context of China’s upcoming Party Congress in my series China in Transition (see Macroeconomics and Business, postings 63 and loosely following for that series, and particularly its Part 1 for a brief biographical note about Xi Jinping.) I add here that I wrote that at least in part with an orientation more or less along the same lines that Xi and his supporters might take in presenting him as more a man of the people who has lived and worked with China’s rural peasants, than simply as coming from a princely lineage.

That is a crucially important point, and particularly for any potential leader who carries a princely imprimatur. Modern China pays homage to the nobility and worth of its peasant masses, as carrying the true spirit of the country and of Party. At the same time it has and holds dear to its princes: founders and children of founders of Communist China and heroes of their cause. And Bo Xilai and his story raise points of comparison in that, that are very troubling.

• Xi, as noted in my earlier biographical notes, lived and worked as a peasant laborer in Yanchuan County, Yan’an while his father was out of favor and out of power, and he went on to request a position out of the political capital of Beijing as Party chief of Zhejiang province. And after that he went on to serve as Party chief in Shanghai. So Xi Jinping and his supporters claim, and with some genuine legitimacy that he is more than simply a pampered prince; he has actually accomplished on his own and received recognition for that, and certainly during his early years when he built a foundation for a possible career path to come.
• But Bo Xilai also holds claim to being a prince, son of one of the founding leaders – but also a man of the people who has lived and worked with and as a peasant. Like Xi, Bo was the son of a prince of the realm who fell out of favor, leaving him to prove himself or not on his own merits. Even after his father’s release from prison he worked in a factory before being accepted at and attending Beijing University which he entered by public examination on the merits of his performance in the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, or Gaokao. He did not get in by exemption where princelings often do. So whatever else might be said about him, if Xi Jinping cannot simply be labeled as a princeling then Bo Xilai cannot be either.
• But the developing narrative of denunciation of Bo is already doing that. And in what has to be seen as an inevitable consequence, comparisons are being made and at least some voices are now beginning to raise questions about Xi’s claims to being grounded in the common man and in China’s peasantry. And this brings me to a crucial point. The scandals I have been writing about in this series are not so much a problem for their own more local events and narratives, but rather for the comparisons they invite as they shed unfavorable perspective on China’s elite in general.

I almost never write two consecutive postings to a single series, to go live on consecutive days but I am making an exception here. I am going to follow this posting tomorrow with a look at China’s economic slowdown and at the flip side to the favored prince side of this story – with a discussion of challenges that are faced by the peasant class and the public in general of China. And yes I will do that through discussion of at least one major scandal that has recently erupted into public awareness in China, highlighting their all too often plight. Here, the real impact of the princely scandals comes from the contrasts they highlight when held up against the lives and circumstances of the vast majority of China’s citizens. Meanwhile, you can find this posting and related at Macroeconomics and Business. And I also recommend reviewing the postings and series concerning this that are listed in Part 1.

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