Why Hu Jintao is not a Lame Duck

Hu Jintao
Image via Wikipedia

In the Hutong
Keeping warm
1434 hrs.

Last Friday I had an interesting conversation with Newsweek’s Isaac Stone Fish. Among other things, we talked about the growing meme among China observers that as Hu Jintao takes his trip to the United States, given that he only has two years left in his 10 year term, he is somehow a “lame duck”.

As I told Isaac, Hu is nobody’s idea of a handicapped waterfowl. The importance of Mr. Hu being in the “home stretch” of his administration is at best overstated, and at worst completely misunderstood, for two reasons.

Peak Power

Most observers calling Hu a “lame duck” are looking at the situation in China through a filter formed by years of watching Western politics. In the West, when leaders are elected to office, they begin their administrations by selecting a slate of their own senior bureaucrats and political appointees, allowing them to place their stamp on government and put into place a group of officials prepared to take the President’s direction.

This system, commonly known as “to the victor goes the spoils,” ensures that when a new leader comes office, they not only bring an electoral mandate, they come to office with a tremendous amount of power and at the very least control over their own administrations.

By contrast, when the Communist Party of China selects a leader to take the highest position in the country, that individual’s ascent is the result of debates and compromises at the highest levels of the Party, and the new leader must govern with a team of bureaucrats and political appointees selected for him by the Party’s Organization Department. What this means is that many if not most of the individuals working for this new president are not beholden to him for their political fortunes to the same degree as their Western counterparts, and some, as the result of the compromises that brought the leader to office, may even be members of a rival faction.

After the leader takes office, though, he is able to gradually extend his influence as the Party and the government evolve, as official retire, and as circumstances permit. As such, China’s leaders thus build and consolidate their power over their time in office. This explains in part how Jiang Zemin was able to muster the support to retain his chairmanship over the Central Military Commission for a year after he handed the reins to the Party and Government to Hu Jintao.

Indeed, you could argue that every Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping left office at the peak of his power. Hu Jintao is unlikely to be any different.

Consensus Rules

The other reason Hu is not a “lame duck” lies in a misconception about the ebb and flow of Chinese government policy that is also rooted in a western view of politics. Leadership changes in western countries, even those where leaders are of the same party, are usually harbingers of policy change, sometimes quite radical (in rhetoric, at least.) This is because those policies are a reflection of the leader and his/her values and priorities.

In China, however, policies are formed over time in response to a wider set of considerations, and decision-making is more consensus-driven, especially foreign policy. China’s leaders are now “first among equals,” and thus less likely to impose their personal imprint on policy. Those policies are not just made by government functionaries, but by the Party, the PLA, and a growing host of domestic special interest groups to which China’s leaders are increasingly beholden.

If Obama makes a deal with Hu today, in other words, he is not making a deal with an administration that is on its way out the door, but with a governing apparatus that will change only incrementally when the new administration takes office. In other words, all other things being equal, Xi Jinping will be as obligated to adhere to the policies and agreements of his predecessor as Hu Jintao is today.

The Lame Duck Problem

This is more than a matter of semantics. The west generally and America specifically cannot afford to put off substantive progress in relations with China until 2013. The problems that plague the bilateral relationships need to be addressed now, and addressed with the understanding that waiting until Xi ascends and consolidates his power, we will have lost as much as five years in the effort.

The time to engage with China is now, and, at the moment, Hu is the man.

stuart

“The time to engage with China is now, and, at the moment, Hu is the man.”

I couldn’t agree more with this statement, and in Obama I think we see a US president that understands this and, moreover, has reached out to the Chinese more than most previous holders of his office. This was particularly true during that first visit to Beijing, where Obama attempted to set a new, humble tone with his Chinese counterparts.

But is Beijing a willing participant in such a rapprochement? As I see it, the Chinese are (through stupidity, hubris, or the smell of blood) unwilling to engage in a reasonable partnership. And the sense is – with some justification – that any equitable agreement on trade, currency, IP, you name it, is likely to be adhered to by Beijing in a typically opaque, stalling, obfuscated manner that understandably infuriates those whose past efforts at engagement with China has foundered on the rocks of frustration.

How is team Obama supposed to deal with this? Hope for a sudden wave of moral responsibility to wash over Zhongnanhai? Accept that they’re being bitch-slapped all over the Beltway and back gracefully into a corner kowtowing as they go?

In short, I think the US is willing to engage with China, but so long as Beijing holds – or feels that it holds – the whip hand, China is not prepared to reciprocate. Rather, Hu and co will continue to badger, prevaricate, challenge, and undermine US efforts at every turn (except in those areas where China’s fundamental interests are served).

Thus, I feel the best way forward for Obama is a more aggressive approach (although how this works given the divisive nature of US politics, I’m not sure). I applaud Obama for kicking off the visit of Hu with an informal dinner – great opportunity to engage on a personal level. This may help Obama in the longer term if he’s still around, but it won’t ease anything of substance that they disagree about right now.

Some argue that a ‘zero-sum’ mentality is overstated when talking about the Middle Kingdom. I’d love to be proved wrong, but I’m not among them. Beijing has its eye on the prize, and neither compromise nor equitable agreements serve the advantages China has carved out for itself in the last few decades. For this reason, while it’s laudable to seek engagement, I really don’t think China is receptive to this approach. In fact, on the evidence of 2010, it seems only to imbue them with greater swagger and pugnacity. Hardball might be the best answer, as frightening as that sounds.

David Wolf

Your points are well-taken, Stuart. I think we come to a disagreement only on definitions. While to some “engagement” may to some mean acquiescence to China’s demands and deferral to its professed sensitivities, that is not how I use the word.

I believe constructive engagement – with friends or enemies – can and should be open, frank, and adversarial. And it is time we decide what our non-negotiables are, and then demonstrated to our Chinese friends (in the nicest possible way) that we are, in fact, vertebrates.

Then, and only then, can the relationship proceed in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Otherwise, we simply become on long red carpet to wherever China wants to go.

What we should not do, however, is stop discussions or suspend trying to move issues forward. That is infantile behavior in international relations, something more befitting a global miscreant like Kim Jong Il than a superpower (or a prospective one.)

stuart

Thanks for the reply, David.

It would indeed be infantile to stop trying to move discourse in a positive direction. And in this respect my sense is that Beijing still has a lot of growing up to do. At this juncture China would argue that they need more time, a strategy which has worked a little too well for them. I guess my own frustration is that these two players could REALLY make the world a better, safer place for our children’s generation and beyond, but (resisting the urge to blame one side) do not seem possessed of the will to work together to make it happen.

That’s the burden of having idealistic principles in a realpolitik world.

David Wolf

As a semi-reformed realist, I agree. What vexes me are the choices. On the one hand we tell China to go play with itself until it is ready to play by our rules. Trade, financial, economic, and political realities make that unlikely. On the other, we can tell keep demonstrating to China that it will benefit by being a responsible international player, and it will lose when and where it does not. America needs to be neither Panda-hugger nor Panda-slugger. The only responsible path is to blaze a trail between the two extremes.

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