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  • Peering Behind the Curtain and into the Future:Outlook for the Communist Party of China
  • David Shambaugh (bio)

In the autumn of 2012, the Communist Party of China (CPC) will hold its 18th Party Congress. These five-yearly rituals always offer a good opportunity for foreign scholars and analysts to take stock of the "state of the Party". This Congress is particularly important as such a large leadership transition will occur in all major national-level Party institutions (the Central Committee, Central Military Commission, Politburo and its Standing Committee), and the so-called "fifth generation" will take office. But the questions surrounding the CPC today extend much more broadly and deeply than simply the new leaders who will attempt to govern China — the really important questions are more systemic and institutional in nature.

Of course, the Party itself will do its best to orchestrate a seemingly seamless transition at the Congress, but the political theatre that takes place in the Great Hall of the People belies and obscures various serious fissures inside the Party and pressures on the Party from society and the outside world. The CPC will do its best to conceal these cracks in the façade of its rule, but they are increasingly evident to foreign analysts and Chinese citizens alike. The messy Bo Xilai Affair that unravelled in full public view during the run-up to the Congress was symptomatic of deeper and more pervasive problems plaguing the Party. The CPC will do its best at the Congress to assure the nation and the world that all is under control, and that a unified and visionary new elite is in charge. Indeed, the leadership transition is a good thing, as there is definitely a need for new blood, vision and authority at the top. One of China's real problems in recent years has been its lack of leadership, bold vision and authority. The outgoing leadership under Hu Jintao often seemed sclerotic, uncertain, risk averse, insecure and incremental — all characteristics of a culture of technocratic apparatchiks. By contrast, [End Page 3] the previous Politburo under Jiang Zemin appears, in retrospect, to have been a bunch of bold reformers. To be sure, there is no certainty that the incoming group under Xi Jinping will be able to (or wants to) change this leadership culture in order to tackle the wide range of pressing economic, political, social, environmental, legal and foreign policy challenges confronting China and crying out for decisive action. While "muddle through" may have been a viable strategy in the past, it seems increasingly inadequate to the time and tasks of the future. Just as the "China Model" seemed to be gaining traction at home and abroad, it now seems evident to most knowledgeable observers in and out of China that both the economic and political components of that model have reached the end of their utility and serious systemic reforms are needed for both.

In this special issue of China: An International Journal, six leading international specialists on the CPC try to "listen to politics behind the curtain" (chui lian ting zheng) to assess the CPC's condition 91 years after its founding and 63 years in power. They collectively conclude — not surprisingly — that the Party has both strengths and weaknesses. It is important for analysts not to neglect considering the strengths and focus only on the weaknesses. China and the CPC have many strengths and are not comparable to many struggling developing countries, other autocratic regimes, "basket cases" or "failed states". Let us not forget that the CPC has weathered many storms — many very serious and regime-threatening — during its 63 years in power. The Sinological landscape is littered with wrong predictions of the CPC's inevitable demise. The Chinese Party-state also possesses many available instruments that can help to perpetuate its rule — fiscal, political, coercive, technological, institutional, cultural and others. But, like all regimes, it faces many daunting and intractable challenges. Thus, evaluating a political system's efficacy is not a simple matter of tallying a scorecard of strengths vs. weaknesses. All regimes have both. The operative questions concern the balance between the two, the depth of each, their overall trajectory and...


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