On Nov. 15, China’s Communist Party revealed seven officials it has chosen to lead the country over the next ten years.
Led by 59-year-old Xi Jinping, the party’s new general secretary, this marks the largest leadership transition in the history of the People’s Republic of China and the first to take place beyond the guiding hands of the founding revolutionaries.
ArtsWIRE spoke with UBC’s Sophia Woodman about this sixth generation of Chinese leadership and what it will mean for China and the rest of the world.
Woodman, who has a PhD in Sociology, an MS in Journalism, an MSc in Politics and a BA in Chinese Studies, specializes in political sociology and contemporary China at UBC’s Point Grey campus.
Q: You have a BA in Chinese Studies from the University of London. What was it that first sparked your interest in China?
Woodman: At the time I began studying Chinese, China had just launched the “opening up” policy after a long period of being relatively closed to outsiders. I was interested to find out about this place that had such a different and tumultuous history.
Q: You also spent 10 months studying four communities in Tianjin, looking at local-level politics and welfare in the residents and villagers committees. Did investigating politics at the local level give you much insight into how it is conducted at the national level?
Woodman: I found that personal connections are crucial to how the state seeks to interact with citizens. At this local level, state-sponsored organizations such as residents and villagers committees seek to maintain direct contacts with local residents. These relationships act as a mechanism of social control, but they also mean that local people have connections with local officials that allow them to bring grievances and concerns to the local state.
While the national leadership is a long way from these kinds of personal connections, these mechanisms highlight the importance of networks, or “guanxi” to how governance works in China, which is also crucial at the national level. Another aspect is how consensus is very important in choosing leaders. I observed local elections to these committees, and the election processes only went ahead after a degree of consensus had been reached between local centres of power on who the best leaders would be.
Q: China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, is considered to be reform-minded. But how much change can he institute in a single-party state?
Woodman: It is really hard to say what Xi Jinping himself really thinks about anything. He has got to the top of the Party by being an organization man, by being successful within the Communist Party. This means conforming to the norms and organizational imperatives of this institution, rather than expressing his individual viewpoints or having a distinctive policy line, as would be more the case for a political leader in a democratic system.
Given that he has risen to the top of this particular organization, among his main concerns will be maintaining its viability as a ruling Party, and making sure he can balance the interests of the most powerful institutional forces within the Party and the state. Thus I am not sure that “change” will really be top of his agenda.
Q: China’s leaders were chosen over the course of months in secrecy and backroom dealings. Names such as “Xi Jinping” were also blocked from Internet searches in the country leading up to the reveal. So how much does the average Chinese citizen know about these leaders or the process by which they assume power?
Woodman: Citizens probably don’t know much about Xi as an individual, except those who have had personal contacts with him in the past. They also know little about how these selection processes take place. But there is a lot of speculation, and people who want to see change in the way China is governed hope that the transition to a new leadership team might give them opportunities to push forward their agendas. So some of the speculation around “reform” under Xi Jinping can be partly attributed to these kinds of efforts to bring forward policy proposals on specific changes that certain groups of intellectuals think should be top of the new leadership’s list of priorities.
Q: In light of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring revolution, do Chinese officials fear its citizens wanting to move beyond its tightly-controlled system?
Woodman: One of the main claims of the Communist Party to legitimacy is that it is delivering a better life for people. Another is a moral claim to be ruling by virtue; this harks back to Confucian ideas about legitimate leadership being benevolent leadership. I think these forms of legitimation create certain opportunities for citizens to hold the Party accountable to its promises, at least at the local level. So yes, Chinese officials worry that the moral basis of their rule will be undermined by poor governance and corruption.
However, the lessons they take from the collapse of certain authoritarian governments elsewhere are that officials have to actively seek to prevent protests and organizing beyond the local level. These days, the Chinese government reportedly spends more on domestic security (called “stability maintenance”) than on defense.
Q: Will the new regime in China face any difficulties with the rising discontent, assertiveness and financial independence of its citizens?
Woodman: There is certainly a great deal of discontent, often expressed through local level protests and complaints. These remain primarily local in scope, however, and do not coalesce into larger movements that cross the borders of administrative territories. This is in part due to repression, but it is also because it is local authorities that are mainly responsible for people’s welfare and livelihood. There are no national-level welfare programs, for example, all are locally based, and the vast majority of social spending is local. I’ve argued in my work that citizenship is local in China. This is not just an expression of the truism that all politics is local, it is also a fact that local governments are responsible for delivering the entitlements people have. People with grievances go to the authorities they know are responsible for the specific issues they want dealt with; and in China, these are mainly local. So this creates a complex picture of local contention aimed at achieving local resolution of complaints.
Q: China seems to be facing a widening gap between its rich and poor, much to the frustration of most in the middle-class. Is their class divide similar to what North Americans have been experiencing?
Woodman: The so-called “middle class” in China is really a very small proportion of the population. So it is really more of an upper class in a sense. And the fortunes of the professionals, managers and business owners who make it up are tied closely to those of the political elites; people who have made money in China need to have good “connections” to be able to develop their careers or businesses. So people in this “middle class” are not likely to see their interests as being served by making common cause with grassroots groups facing problems with their livelihood.
So I think the divide is rather different; the slogan of the “99%” might not play so well in China.
Q: All seven officials chosen to lead China over the coming years are men, although in the days leading up to the reveal, Liu Yandong, the only woman in China’s 25-member politburo, was considered a dark horse. What will it take for a woman to finally break into China’s boys club?
Woodman: There are lots of women in positions of authority at the local level, but they tend to be directed into feminized sectors of work, particularly the Women’s Federations and welfare work. These types of institutions control very limited resources and are not considered important sectors — economy and security have much more power and prestige — so women find it difficult to rise through the ranks.
But there are a lot of women who are organizing around feminist issues outside the Party, and even within official organizations like the Women’s Federation, so the picture is not entirely bleak.
* Banner photo by Secretary of Defence, Creative Commons usage.