The New Emperors: The Chinese Leadership and How They Reached the Top

the-new-emperors-book-cover-kerry-brownThe interplay of numerous factors influences who becomes a member of the Political Bureau Standing Committee.

The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China, by Kerry Brown.

I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2014. 244 pp.  

ISBN 978 1 78076 910 3; eISBN 078 0 85773 383 2.

At noon on November 15, 2012, seven men filed onto the dais in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, thus ending months of speculation. A journalist for one major Western news outlet had even conducted an informal contest, asking entrants how many members of the Political Bureau Standing Committee (PBSC) there would be, their names, and the policy portfolios they would hold. While some guesses were more accurate than others, such was the aura of mystery around the selection process that no one got the outcome completely right.

Among the oddities preceding their entrance onto the stage, the meeting at which the chosen ones were anointed, the Eighteenth Party Congress, had been postponed twice; the heir apparent had mysteriously disappeared for two weeks; and one of the early front-runners, Bo Xilai, was in prison, convicted of trying to cover up his wife’s murder of a business partner reputed to have been her lover.

Against this stranger-than-fiction backdrop, the end result seemed anticlimactic. The appearance of the new leadership was collectively bland, even boring. All were Han Chinese, male, late middle-aged, and had black hair, rumored to be chemically enhanced to preserve the appearance of youth. They wore tailored navy suits, crisp white shirts, and conservative ties. Not even the most hyperbole-prone pundit would have been tempted to call them the “Seven Samurai.”

Kerry Brown, a former First Secretary of the British embassy in Beijing and now director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, brings his impressive qualifications to bear in examining the background of these men, the super-elite of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and ultimately of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) itself. Party General Secretary/PRC President/Central Military Commission head Xi Jinping gets his own chapter, as does Premier Li Keqiang; the others are considered seriatim in a single chapter. But behind their consistent and unremarkable surface appearance, the author finds a surprising amount of diversity.

Xi, as is well-known, was a princeling – positioned by both birth and marriage connections among the children of parents who had fought the communist revolution and reaped the benefits of victory for themselves and their families. He had first been introduced to the nation at the Seventeenth Party Congress in 2007 as the putative successor to Hu Jintao. Even so, Xi’s path to power had not been entirely smooth. His father, Xi Zhongsun, had been accused of complicity in an alleged plot against Mao Zedong and hence was sidelined in the years just prior to the Cultural Revolution. Though undoubtedly difficult for both the elder Xi and his family, the purge meant that the son was never able to join a Red Guard rebel group, which might well have caused him problems later in life.

Xi Jinping was one of the millions of youth sent to the countryside to experience the hardships of peasant life, which also proved a blessing in disguise. Unable to attend school to obtain a formal education, Xi somehow managed to acquire both bachelor and Ph.D. degrees from Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University. The latter degree, Brown notes, is suspected of being “outsourced.” Xi somehow skipped the normal intermediate step of a master’s degree as well.

After serving as private secretary to Central Military Commission (CMC) member Geng Biao, Xi was posted first to Hebei and then Fujian provinces, with attacks on corruption becoming a hallmark of his speeches. There were setbacks in his path to the top: for example, at the Fifteenth Party Congress in 2007, Xi came in last in balloting for full membership in the Central Committee (CC), receiving only alternate, non-voting, status.


Xi Jinping, accompanied by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, during a 2012 visit to the United States.

Additional setbacks

Unmentioned by the author were two other stumbles, the first in Mexico City in February 2009 when he lectured Western powers most undiplomatically, saying that “some foreigners, with full bellies and nothing better to do, engage in finger-pointing at us. First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?” Unreported by China’s official media, but widely known through social media, the remarks raised private doubts about Xi’s capacity as a leader.

A second setback occurred only few months later, at the CC’s Fourth Plenum in 2009. Since, as head of the Party Secretariat and vice-president of the PRC, Xi was heir-apparent to Hu Jintao, he was expected to be named a vice-chair of the CMC. He was not, leading to much speculation about the succession.

Though Brown does not dwell on it, Xi’s disappearance from public view just before the Eighteenth Party Congress has never been satisfactorily explained, with most Chinese skeptical of the official explanation that he was recovering from a soccer injury. Yet he did succeed to the top post. One must wonder whether Xi’s determination to be a strong leader and his attacks, thus far successful, on his putatively corrupt rivals are connected to efforts to settle scores for the past setbacks.

In contrast with Xi, Premier Li Keqiang has been quite unlucky. He comes from a more –– though not entirely – humble background, trained initially in law, and received a “real” Ph.D. in economics from the equally prestigious Beijing University. Li impresses those who have met him with his sharp mind and smooth operating style, in contrast to his famously awkward mentor, Hu Jintao, who oversaw Li’s rise through the ranks of the Communist Youth League that Hu once headed. Brown sees Li as a more personable version of Hu – a problem solver rather than a policy initiator.

Shortly after being placed in charge of Henan, a succession of disastrous fires occurred in the province, earning Li the nickname of “the governor with three fires.” Next, Li was confronted with a tainted-blood scandal that made international headlines and caused him to clamp down hard in the name of stability, compensating some of the noisiest complainants and enforcing a news blackout. Only two months after his transfer to Liaoning, a coal mine explosion killed 214 workers, exposing major defects in mine safety. More explosions followed, this time in a karaoke hall and bath house.

Apparently Li’s efforts at crisis management favorably impressed his superiors, as did Liaoning’s economic growth rate during his time there. Though clearly Hu Jintao’s favorite to succeed him in the highest party and governmental posts, Li had to settle for second best, however.

The other five members of the PBSC also show a range of different backgrounds and characteristics. Wang Xishan, whose degree was in history, had not even joined the CCP until he was in his 30s; Zhang Dejiang studied in North Korea in the late 1970s; Liu Yunshan had worked as a journalist in Inner Mongolia, and Zhang Gaoli was an executive in a state oil company for nearly 20 years before entering government service. Most surprising of all must be Yu Zhengsheng, whose brother, a bureau chief in the Ministry of State Security, defected to the United States in 1985, creating a scandal that would normally have tainted his family members beyond redemption.

Some, like Zhang Gaoli, have connections with business networks, while others, such as Zhang Dejiang, seem almost antagonistic to them. Some, including Xi Jinping, amassed substantial local support for their careers in central government; others, though serving in various provinces, did not. And whereas Xi’s rise was aided by a strong family network, Yu Zhengsheng’s was marred by his, with several relatives even having committed suicide.


Drawing conclusions

What then should one make of the data? Brown’s aim goes far beyond the presentation of biographical information, seeking to tease out the factors that made the difference between also-rans and those who emerged at the pinnacle of party leadership. He is skeptical of the importance of factional loyalty, terming it “a somewhat ossified and static notion.”

On the question of ideology – what these people actually believe – Brown opines that they believe in themselves, in power, and in the importance of maintaining that power. They act with real ruthlessness to achieve it. Family and what the author calls tribal alliances based on family connections continue to matter, as they did in pre-1949 China. Brown reports that in the run-up to the Eighteenth Party Congress there were frequent reports of family meetings, with evidence of contestation within them.

Also critically important, according to the author, are provincial links, with the path to Beijing often running through the provinces. In addition, business and money are “key and becoming more important.” The CCP has uniquely melded a Marxist ideology to cutthroat capitalistic entrepreneurship, even bringing its avatars into a party that supposedly represents workers and peasants.

However, Brown notes, patronage is also important, as are military and institutional ties. Here, a bit more attention to how the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) acts on and influences the members of the PBSC, either as individuals or as an institution, would have been helpful. For the past two decades, even as the PLA has become increasingly powerful and its members increasingly publicly outspoken, even to the point of differing from official government policy, there has been no military representative in the PBSC. Within the past several years, there have been hints that, contrary to Mao Zedong’s dictum, the party may not always control the gun. Yet ominously, the first part of Mao’s sentence on the topic, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” remains relevant.

As Brown weighs these factors, he suggests that it would be advisable for a would-be future leader of the PRC to first seek the support of the elite, presumably meaning the party elite, and business. Least influential are the support of intellectual and military elites. Xi Jinping’s success rests on the fact that he alone combined the full range of these networks. There is a bit of the post hoc ergo propter hoc juxtaposition of cause and effect in this analysis. Did Xi’s success really depend on these bases more than did countless other wannabe leaders? Or did the analysis start with the conclusion of Xi’s success, note the networks he tapped into, and work backward?

Additionally, some of the critical factors affecting why these men succeeded while others did not may simply not be publicly available. Particularly in the PRC’s opaque system, nefarious deeds often remain hidden. Bo Xilai’s actions came to light almost accidentally when his chief of police, becoming concerned that Bo meant to blame him for complicity in the murder, fled to the American consulate-general in Chengdu in an apparent attempt to claim asylum. Until former PBSC member and security chief Zhou Yongkang fell afoul of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, his misdeeds were also unknown. These cases may well be the visible tip of an iceberg of unknown, but presumably large, size.

Further, the important networks Brown has documented interact with individuals in different ways at different times – ways that are scarcely predictable. In the end, what may matter most is luck.

Still, however the lucky seven rose to their lofty positions, they face a common dilemma. In Brown’s elegant phrase, it is imperative that the leadership re-establish the “emotional connection with the population” that existed in the early years of the CCP. This task will not be easy. As Brown points out, Chinese society has become more diverse, and also more outspoken. People are increasingly more likely to protest worsening pollution, the confiscation of land, and official abuses of power. Income disparities have not only become greater, but more visibly so, thereby exacerbating tensions, while social media have made it easier for people to share their grievances despite efforts to block and censor the news.

To maintain stability and keep themselves in power, the leadership must create a steady stream of deliverables. Maintaining economic growth in an era of apparent global decline, and a domestic ecosystem at a dangerous inflection point, is a daunting challenge. The essence of Xi’s “China dream” is a society in which the PRC’s citizens have a living standard comparable to that of much of the developed world, and a nation that is innovative and able to produce its own intellectual property. Undoubtedly, he also wishes to see a situation in which the Chinese president is as visible and respected as that of the United States.

At the same time, Brown believes, the leadership is aware that the country has in the last 150 years all too often collapsed in disarray and failure when it tried to take on the West. The leaders must guide the country in such a way that it does not splinter into disunity or become overwhelmed by internal instability. This means they will have to find a way to mobilize the already fragmented, sometimes fractious worlds within China of different networks and power groups so that they work together to deliver the dream.