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Books: The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China.

By Kerry Brown for China Brain.


`The New Emperors’ looks at the nature of power in modern China, and in particular at the key location where most of this power is now placed – the Standing Committee of the Politburo, which, since 2012, has had a mere seven people sitting on it. It is on this body that the key strategic decisions about China’s economic and political direction are made. The members of this group are superficially very similar. They are all men, all ethnically Han, and all in their fifties or sixties, They are lifelong members of the Communist Party, and own total allegiance to it. They have served almost all their professional careers in entities either under its control or at its centre. But looking a little more closely at the biographies of these seven individuals shows that under the surface there is great diversity, and that the current Communist Party of China is not a monolithic entity, but more akin to a dynamic organism, adapting, reshaping, changing and evolving. The sole shared quality is their allegiance to the Party’s continuing hold on power, and its centrality in modern Chinese political life.  This could be called their common cause, as the Party’s faithful servants and guardians.



In this book, my approach has been to map out a new concept of what power is in modern China, and how people exercise it. I argue that the key issue is not about factions, with their neat delineations and boundaries and misleading rationality, but more networks, loose, liquid and constantly shifting and changing. The concept of network, outlined in works like that of the great Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong, serves to capture the dynamism of political debts, allegiances and negotiations in China. The transition from the leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang illustrates this. This was a succession process without overt public campaigning. The sole figure who did seem to be pushing for his promotion onto the Standing Committee, Bo Xilai, failed spectacularly in achieving his aim, and is now in jail for claimed corruption crimes. All the other figures had to promote their cause in a subterranean, calculating way, building up support and capital amongst business, provincial, family, party, ministerial, intellectual and military circles. Those that secured the widest support had the best chance of succession. The final casting vote in the process was the benediction given at the very end by retired former elite leaders, such as Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji.


The outcome of the process over 2011 and into 2012 was a Standing Committee where membership was largely based on specific constituencies and skills that successful figures brought to a leadership that is faced with some of the toughest issues of continuing reform faced in the country over the last four decades. Of the seven, six had served at the highest level in Provincial government, in charge of major economies, some of them working in two or more large provinces as Party bosses. The exception, Liu Yunshan, figures in the leadership as ideological leader, a former journalist for the Xinhua news agency in Inner Mongolia whose route to the top had largely been through the state propaganda and information management apparatus. His membership shows how critical this area is for the new leaders. The rest had all had provincial and central ministerial records to lay down as evidence of their abilities.


In the `New Emperors’ I look at the previous statements, actions and records of the leadership before they were promoted in 2012. In Xi Jinping, we see the member of an elite Party family whose father remains immensely respected and admired, and whose networks were of great assistance to his son in coming through Fujian, Zhejiang and then Shanghai before being brought to the Centre in 2007. Xi Jinping has been called the `peasant emperor’ in China, someone who knew hardship as a youth but who is now seen as a member of the new aristocracy.  Li Keqiang is also linked to former elites through his wife, but has a stronger intellectual background, studying law in Beijing in the 1980s and then completing a Ph D in economy in the early 1990s. Li’s stewardship of Liaoning and Henan provinces shows someone who was able to manage crises, but about whom there are questions over his skills as an implementer.


For Zhang Gaoli, the story is simply about an official from the state oil industry who was able to deliver staggering high levels of GDP growth in the provinces he was put in charge of through skillful recruitment of business networks. Zhang Dejiang, a North Korean trained economist, showed different tactics in Zhejiang, and then Guangdong province, using high levels of physical coercion to deal with acrimonious disputes, speaking out strongly against the private sector, but showing total pragmatism when put in charge of provinces with huge private entrepreneurialism, never letting ideology standing in the way of economic success. Wang Qishan is the maverick of the current leadership, someone who came from a mixed professional background, studying history and then working at a think tank in Beijing and only joining the Party when he was already in his thirties. But Wang’s skills as an economist and a diplomat are already proven, and his current task of heading the anti corruption agency shows that he is regarded as someone who gets things done, no matter what enemies he makes.


Finally, there is Yu Zhengsheng, a man from one of the most elite family backgrounds, and with the longest and richest provincial experience, but someone who has also suffered greatly, with his sister reportedly killing herself in the Cultural Revolution. Yu is regarded as the `older brother’ on the leadership, someone very close to the family of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.


Beyond their biographies however, there is the key question of what precisely they believe their mission is, and what sort of world they are trying to create in China. In the final chapter, I look in detail at the words of the three who have said most about their beliefs in the last decade – Xi, Li and Liu. With these figures,  I map out from their own worlds a vision of the world and their role in it. For Xi, this is clearly restoring the moral mandate of the party after too many years of allowing it to be sullied by greed and larceny; for Li, the core issue is unleashing more spaces for growth within China and becoming less economically dependent on the world outside; and for Liu, it is conveying the core message of party ideology and belief to a sometimes unreceptive and disbelieving membership.  For all of them and their colleagues, the great mission is a simple one: to steer China towards becoming a strong, rich and powerful country in the 21st century, and one that has its rightful status restored in the world.



Kerry Brown is Professor of Politics and Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, and Associate Fellow of Chatham House, London. `The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China’ was published by I B Tauris in June and available from Amazon here.




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