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Lieberthal on Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s strategy, prospects

December 11, 2013
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China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, is proving to be much different from his predecessor. Xi recently unveiled a sweeping reform plan, sparking a discussion about whether China can really pull off the ambitious program. Kenneth Lieberthal shared his views on the matter during a Dec. 11 lecture, “Xi Jinping’s Strategy and Prospects,”  sponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan.

Lieberthal, a professor emeritus at U-M,  is a senior fellow in foreign policy, global economy and development at the Brookings Institution.  His latest book –  “Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy,” co-authored with Martin Indyk and Michael O’Hanlon – was published by the Brookings Press in March 2012.

Below are excerpts from Lieberthal’s talk and a video clip shot before the lecture. A video of the lecture is available here.

Who is Xi Jinping?

He is the un-Hu Jintao. Hu Jintao was a consensus builder who always hid his own views. Xi is into strong leadership. Very bold. He gets his personal views out. He articulates things not in terms of one slogan after another but in terms that people can really understand. He has increased dramatically his personal authority within the Standing Committee of the Politburo. With Hu Jintao, the nine-member Standing Committee would discuss a policy decision and if anyone at the end of the discussion said he could not agree with the others, Hu would table it. Instead of going with the majority, he would say that either we have a consensus or we don’t make a decision. The result of that in the final years of his governance was that they made no decisions. All the decisions about structural reforms were put aside so that the next administration could deal with the tough issues. Well, the next administration has arrived, and Xi has said I am going to take them on big time. Not by consensus.


The challenge of governing an unwieldy, massive political system

My view is that the biggest problem they face is that there are 40,000 territorial units in China: townships, counties, cities and provinces. Each is headed by two top guys: the party secretary and the governor or mayor or whatever is the equivalent. So you have 80,000 in five layers of government whose incentive is to not change the way the system works now. They have done great with the way the system works now. How do you work through 80,000 people in five different levels spread across a continent to get changes in behavior? The only way to do it is to change the incentives. All of the incentives now for these guys is to prioritize big-capital projects because it’s an opportunity to skim off funds, to focus on GDP growth every year because that’s one of the key measures of evaluation of performance and promotion. It’s a whole series of things that has been key to China’s dynamic growth to date but has now become increasingly problematic.

Xi’s complexities and contradictions

Xi is seeking to use authoritarian political power – the power of an authoritarian party – to shape the demands and activity of an increasingly educated, mobile and networked middle class. That’s going to be very tough.

He’s also going to encounter a lot of complexities, in terms of contradictions with certain parts of the program that he is now promoting. For example, they want to dramatically expand the role of the market. They also want to assure greater fairness in the distribution of wealth. I hate to tell you that the markets don’t always produce fairness in the distribution of wealth. These things sound good. But getting them to work well is a different level of task.

Will Xi succeed?

Deng Xiaoping was a genius. He had a huge impact on the course of history of the largest country in the world. But his genius was not in specifying 60 things that he was going to reform. He knew the broad direction in which he wanted to move China. His genius was in the ensuing 15 years to manage the politics of the reform effort so that he could, on balance, keep things moving basically in the right direction over time, having to pull back for years at a time, having to fight with some of his closest colleagues. It was managing the politics of all this that was crucial. That was his real genius – avoiding the collapse of the system, while the system gradually changed. My own sense is that will be the real test for Xi Jinping. Nobody knows how all of this is going to come down. A lot of it is not going to work as planned. The question is whether Xi will have the enormous political skill that will be necessary to, on balance, move China in the direction he has indicated. I think it will be a fascinating decade to watch.



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