The new generation of Chinese leaders is prepared to maintain Beijing’s partnership with Moscow and may even seek closer ties should the geopolitical standoff with the United States in the Asia-Pacific intensify, Russian analysts said.
Domestically, the crawling democratization of the last decade, coupled with growing inequality, may result in increased demand for political freedoms, but no street protests are expected, said Andrei Karneyev of the Institute of Asian and African Studies at the Moscow State University.
“Macroeconomics is a top priority for Chinese leadership; social problems can wait, it’s more of a long-term thing,” agreed Vasily Kashin, a China expert at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Seven of nine members of the Communist Party’s Central Politburo Standing Committee, China’s de-facto supreme authority, are to step down due to age restrictions during the party’s 18th congress, which opened on Thursday.
The only ones expected to retain their seats are senior party officials Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, who are set to replace President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, respectively, formally becoming the leaders of the “fifth generation of Chinese leadership.” The first was the late Chairman Mao Zedong.
The identities of these likely successors were known years in advance, but party leadership was rocked in recent months by a struggle over the remaining committee seats, which was unusually public, if not transparent.
One Standing Committee hopeful, Bo Xilai, was purged from the party and hit with a criminal investigation over numerous alleged wrongdoings earlier this year, after his wife was convicted of poisoning a British entrepreneur over a business dispute.
His high-profile case was styled by China watchers as a political coup attributed to president-in-waiting Xi and/or a show anti-corruption trial, meant to signal that the government is ready to tackle rampant graft.
Axis of Convenience
The upcoming “Xi-Li administration” is not planning to change the country’s Russia policy, Karneyev said.
Russia and China, both permanent members of the UN Security Council, have worked together in global affairs over recent years, most notably by coordinating the stance on last year’s revolt in Libya and the ongoing civil war in Syria.
The countries have managed to overcome mutual distrust after the fall of the Soviet Union to form an opportunistic alliance based on Realpolitik, foreign policy analyst Bobo Lo of the London-based Centre for European Reform argued in his seminal 2008 study, “Axis of Convenience.”
Xi and Li have traveled to Russia after securing successor status, meeting with Russian leadership, as did as a number of other up-and-coming party functionaries. The non-public meetings imply the “axis of convenience” will remain in place, analysts said.
China’s new leadership may be expected to take a more proactive stance in foreign affairs, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, Kashin said.
China has a number of ongoing disputes with neighbors, including Japan and Vietnam. Chinese military officials have also been calling to “teach a lesson” to certain US allies in the region, including Philippines.
This may lead to a political confrontation between Beijing and Washington, Kashin said.
In this case, both countries would be seeking Russia’s support, giving Moscow ample opportunity to maneuver and trade support for geopolitical perks, he said.
But the “Xi-Li administration” is not expected to conduct any actual military offensives, and a potential political standoff with the United States would run parallel to economic cooperation, which is too important for both countries to be undone, Kashin said.
‘A Political Miracle’
Many Chinese have benefitted from the country’s “economic miracle” – but by now, it has unostentatiously brought about a political one, Karneyev said.
Political affairs are increasingly discussed in major media outlets and have become part of public opinion in the past decade, Karneyev said. Heir apparent Xi has indicated that he may continue with gradual political liberalization.
The transition from economic prosperity to political activism is similar to the rise in middle-class’ political consciousness in Russia after Vladimir Putin announced his return to presidency last year, experts said.
However, the analogy is limited due to economic differences, they said. The Chinese prosperity is relative, with social inequality on the rise in China even as economic growth is slowing.
Chinese GDP growth is slowed down from 9.3 percent in 2011 to 7.4 percent in the third quarter of this year. The richest ten percent of China’s households earned 23 times more than the poorest 10 percent in 2007, compared to 7.3 times in 1988, according to a study by Beijing Normal University.
Growth Against Dissent
Maintaining rapid growth is vital to keeping discontent in check, Kashin said.
“With the Communist ideology increasingly devalued [by the rise of capitalism], sustained economic growth is the main source of legitimacy for the party,” Karneyev said.
But neither political activism nor social tensions are expected to result in public unrest on a major scale in the coming years, experts said.
Most people in China are not yet politically conscious enough for dissent, while the government has already launched a program to address social issues, working to create a universal pension system, improving health care and upholding worker rights, Kashin said.
“Unlike the USSR, they identify their problems correctly,” Kashin said. “We’ll see how they fare, but so far they’re putting forth viable solutions.”