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New Chinese Leaders Affirm Nationalist Ideals Rather Than Reform

November 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
The new Chinese leader seems to have a positive personal attitude towards the U.S., but how he may approach U.S. relations is unclear. Jeffrey Brown talks to Christopher Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies about the rise of nationalist -- rather than more reform-minded -- voices on the Politburo.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on China’s new leaders, we turn to Christopher Johnson. He had a two-decade career at the CIA as a China analyst and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

So we now know the new group of leaders. Were any surprises in that?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON, Center for Strategic and International Studies: No, I don’t think there were.

We saw — this list had been circulated — this more conservative list had been circulated a couple of weeks ago, and so it came out exactly as it had been predicted. It is unfortunate that these more reform-oriented people didn’t make the list, but I think we knew in advance who was going to show up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what does conservative and reform mean in today’s China vis-a-vis the party and the government?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Yes, that’s actually a great question.

It’s important to emphasize that these people who are deemed as more conservative are not somehow orthodox hard-liners. These are people who believe in the reform process that Deng Xiaoping launched 30 years ago. So it’s a much narrower band in terms of how they compete over these issues.

So, it’s a matter a degree of reform, not which reform should be pursued. And what are we really talking about is, is there — should the party be pursuing a next wave of economic and political reform?

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as to Xi Jinping himself, I was struck watching that in his statement where he was critical of the party, was talking about, what, corruption, taking describes, being out of touch with people. Was that unusual?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: It is unusual. In the past when we have seen these sort of introductory things, it’s been a lot of sort of communist-speak.

And in this case, I think — and we saw this in the whole tone of this 18th party Congress, much more self-reflection on the part of the party. And that’s because of these scandals that have been rocking the party.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, you do think it’s because of that?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Absolutely true, yes, both the one case where we had a Politburo member’s wife involved in murdering a foreign citizen, and then disclosures about the massive amounts of wealth the families of these senior leaders, as noted in the piece, have been compiling.

JEFFREY BROWN: But there’s a sense that all of that has forced the leadership to open up a little bit, at least address some of these things?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Absolutely, to begin thinking about it, and at least signaling the public that they’re serious about these issues of corruption and trying to create a more balanced economy and a more balanced country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Remind us what we do and don’t know about Xi Jinping.

We just heard a little that we know about his background, son of a — one of — a revolutionary leader, daughter at Harvard, and the celebrity wife. What else do we know?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Yes. That’s pretty much it.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s it?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: They’re very careful about how they do these things. Obviously, we know where he’s served in the past. And he’s been primarily in these coastal regions, which are the more developed regions of China.

But he also had some experience during the Cultural Revolution. He was one of these so-called sent-down youth, where he worked in a rural community. So he’s seen as somebody who, despite that privileged background, being a princeling, you know, the son of these people who founded the regime, he understands the people of China quite well.

What we don’t know is what his policy views are toward the United States, how much reform he might support, things of that nature.

JEFFREY BROWN: I note that you used that word princeling. I noted that several of the new leaders are in that category, I think.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: So it’s clearly a generational change happening?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Yes, definitely so.

It’s quite interesting. During the previous generations, when Deng Xiaoping and his ilk were running the top leadership, one of the key problems in the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989, what sparked them was popular anger about the activities of these princelings.

And so for a long time within the system, there was actually a ban on seeing these people promoted to too high within the system. That was removed by Jiang Zemin. And we have seen them now come into the fore. One of the reasons why they’re favored is because they’re seen as defending the party. Being from the people who founded the party, they will defend it more strongly.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the questions going in here had been whether the new leader would be head of both the party and the military.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: That’s right.  

JEFFREY BROWN: That seems to have been settled in, yes, both.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: If is that significant?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: It’s very significant.

I think it’s very helpful for Xi Jinping. It allows him to pretty much be fully empowered coming into power. For Hu Jintao, the previous president, they had a sort of aborted transition, where the previous president, Jiang Zemin, stayed in that military commission chair.

And this created tremendous confusion within the system as to who was really in charge, what policies should be followed.

This way, Xi Jinping will be fully empowered to start moving ahead with his own policy direction.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Now, that’s the next question. What is that, especially vis-a-vis the U.S.?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What kinds of things would be on the table that might impact the long-term relationship?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Yes.

I think what is going to be going on for Xi Jinping and his policy toward the U.S. is a struggle between his own inclinations and some of the pressures that we have been seeing developing in China. It’s clear. Because his daughter is at Harvard, because he’s visited the United States many times — his visit here in February, he made clear that he has positive feelings towards the United States and wants to maintain a stable bilateral relationship.

The problem is that we have seen the increase of these nationalist voices as China’s status internationally has risen. And they’re calling for the new leadership not to be seen as caving to U.S. pressure. And so Xi is going to have to find that balance between his own natural inclinations to have a good relationship and these pressures that he’s facing from within.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the question is, where do those pressures come from and how strong are they?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: They’re quite strong. And it’s a combination of factors.

One, of course the one that everyone points to is the military and the increasing voice of the Chinese military. This is often overdrawn, however, in my opinion. They certainly are an influential actor within the system. They have been modernizing their military and they have strong views on these territorial issues, such as these island disputes and so on.

But the bigger factor has been the nationalism among the common public that the party itself has unleashed in an effort to legitimize itself with the fall of communist ideology and so on.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, finally, is there any question about his power or the power of this new Standing Committee? Is that — that’s clear and well-established?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Yes, it’s settled.

They are the new rulers of China. Obviously, because of the way this selection process took place, he’s going to have to give some face to these previous rulers, but he’s been given sort of a straight power endowment here, and we will see him using that going forward, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Christopher Johnson, thanks so much.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, online, we have a who’s-who in China’s new government. That’s on the Rundown.