In the Hutong
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.
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.
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.