'The problem is that in the world outside China, we largely have no clue.’
‘Although the political factions in China are not so clear to the outside world, if you ask any taxi driver in Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou, he or she will tell you – with accuracy - which leader belongs to which faction,’ Cheng Li told me during our discussion of his terrific book, Chinese Politics in the Xi Jinping Era.
‘The problem,’ he went on to say, ‘is that in the world outside China, we largely have no clue.’ And, not having a clue, we keep making bad China policies, bad China business deals, bad China investments.
What Cheng challenges us to do is to go beyond our superficial assumptions and strive to understand how the Chinese political system really works…
China is a one–party state, but that does not necessarily mean Chinese leadership is a monolithic group with leaders who have the same ideas, same background, same world views, same politics. No, they're divided.
Because we do not understand them, we sometimes think these people are the same, that they are all authoritarian dictators. The reality is far more complicated. Chinese leaders also divided by different factions or coalitions. Everywhere there are factions.
These factions are already competing and horse trading in the run-up to the 19th Party Congress this fall, where…
The entire leadership will undergo substantial changes, from municipal level, provincial level, and the national level, especially the Central Committee and the Politburo Standing Committee....Somewhere between 70% to 75% of leaders will be replaced. This will be the largest leadership turnover since 1969 during the Cultural Revolution.
At stake is whether or not President Xi Jinping can consolidate his power. Cheng contends, 'Xi is a leader still trying to position himself.’ His success at consolidation is far from assured, and he has to be careful with his every move until after the Congress adjourns. Something our government should take into account as we reshape our relationship with China.
Given the complex and opaque workings of Chinese politics, we are fortunate to have Cheng Li. Cheng is not only the Director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, he is also the pre-eminent expert on Chinese elite politics and has been for decades.
I commend to you Cheng’s book Chinese Politics in the Xi Jinping Era– to help us all be a little less clueless about Chinese politics. I likewise invite you to watch my discussion with Cheng.