Letter from China

RECENTLY the world was treated to a spectacular study in political contrast, with the American and Chinese leadership elections coming to a close within two weeks of each other.

In the US we saw the end of a campaign that lasted the best part of 18 months, while in China the newly elected leaders stepped out in a ceremony lasting less than an hour. Western media generally seized upon this contrast to illustrate the negatives of the Chinese political system, yet for China the lack of any sense of occasion was a victory in itself.

In a country whose history is littered with uprisings, revolutions and war, this was undoubtedly the least traumatic handover of power in its modern history.

Since the revolution in 1949 there have been five transfers of power, and each of the previous four were marred by various degrees of instability.

Two transfers were necessitated by death (Mao Zedong in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping in 1997), while Hua Guofeng was the victim of a palace coup in 1977. The transfer of power from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao in 2002 was the first transfer that could be described as a "handover", but even then it was not all plain sailing.

Mr Jiang retained control of the armed forces for two years after the handover, thereby wielding some power from beyond the political grave and limiting the writ of the new president.

By contrast, when the new government formally assumes power in March, there will not be any such shenanigans. For the first time in many centuries China will see the handover of all power from one healthy and capable leadership to another.

To make things even more splendidly boring, none of the seven new members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee has publicly known views on any major issues. We know that North Korea-educated Zhang Dejiang (pronounced Jang-De-Jiang, with De as in dermatology and the a’s pronounced like the u in lung) probably represents a traditionalist view, given that he has in the past opposed the admission of business people to party ranks.

On the other side of the spectrum sits Wang Qishan (Wang-Chee-Shan), who served at the People’s Bank of China and is known for championing the liberalising of China’s capital markets. In between are Yu Zhengsheng (Uu-Jeng-Sheng, with the Uu pronounced as in the name Van Vuuren and the e’s pronounced like the i in cousin), Liu Yunshan (Lio-Uun-Shan, with the o pronounced like the word awe, with the Uu and a as in the examples above), and Zhang Gaoli (Jang-Gao-Lee, with ao as in chairman Mao).

As with the handover of power in 2002, the big political parlour game is to predict the new leadership’s capacity for political and economic reform. The conventional wisdom suggests not too much, as these figures are not elected for their revolutionary zeal, but to ensure continuity.

Some commentators even suggest that the new leadership’s appetite for reform is a moot point, as five of the seven will not be allowed a second term due to party rules on the compulsory age of retirement for leaders.

That would then leave President Xi Jinping (Shee-Jeen-Peeng) and Prime Minister Li Keqiang (Lee-Ke-Chiang, with the ke pronounced as in kernel) as the only members who will serve in the second term. The discussion about attitudes towards reform would then, according to this logic, only be relevant with regard to these two individuals.

Well, yes and no. For the moment it is safe to assume that no drastic changes will be seen during Mr Xi’s first term. Still, there is a pressing need for economic reform in China that cannot be ignored or delayed for too long. China may not be standing on a burning platform, but a reluctance to address the issues may eventually see it falling behind the curve of events. This reality is well understood in China and the Communist Party is unlikely to treat Mr Xi’s first term as an orientation session.

The most likely scenario is of the next five years being used to prepare the political ground inside the party for some serious economic (and even political?) reforms in the second term. The five members of the standing committee who can serve only one term are in a perfect position to swing the reform axe behind the scenes as they have no future political careers to worry about.

In the second term, starting in 2018, Mr Xi and Mr Li will publicly drive a reformist agenda, using their five-year head start over the new members to make the needed reforms. The question of the new administration’s appetite for reform is thus not a question of "if", so much as "when" and "how".

• Kobus van der Wath is Group MD of The Beijing Axis. He can be reached at kobus@thebeijingaxis.com