The new Chinese leadership is likely to prioritize economic development and internal stability, but will need to adapt to an increasingly interconnected public, says Richard H. Solomon, former president of the U.S. Institute of Peace, in the video embedded below as part of Asia Society's series on China's leadership transition.
"In some ways, the society and its economy have outgrown the political system that led to the Communists taking over China in 1949," argues Solomon. "A one-party, authoritarian government now is ruling over a society that is totally wired, that's involved in world affairs. Its economy is totally linked to the world, and the new leadership is going to have to figure out how it deals with, [the] kind of disparity between its governance and the way the society and the economy function."
Solomon also predicts that the "need for stability rooted in economic growth" will drive the leaders' decisions on foreign policy issues, such as the U.S.-China relationship. Solomon notes that "the U.S.-China relationship is a complex one." He states that although there is a "positive level of interaction" between the two countries, there is also a "high level of distrust" amongst Chinese and American officials.
Solomon's video is one in a series of interviews we have conducted with the help of our friends at ChinaFile examining China's leadership transition from a variety of viewpoints. (A transcript of Solomon's remarks appears below, in italics.) Additional interviews in the series, along with the rest of Asia Society's coverage of the transition, can be found here.
As the fifth generation approaches its responsibilities, you're dealing with a China that over three decades has gone through a totally unprecedented level of economic development. And in some ways, the society and its economy have outgrown the political system that led to the Communists taking over China in 1949. So a one-party, authoritarian government now is ruling over a society that is totally wired, that's involved in world affairs. Its economy is totally linked to the world, and the new leadership is going to have to figure out how it deals with, kind of disparity between its governance and the way the society and the economy function.
We know that from the grassroots up, there is concern about corruption, about ending income inequality, and whether the party is really listening to the people. Cell phones and internet traffic indicates that the population knows what's going on in the world as well as in its own environs, and there are serious problems there. So, will the pattern of leadership that the party has enjoyed without a lot of debate and pressure from below, will that be sustained, and I think the answer is no. From my recent trips to China, senior people will say that public pressure is something that the leadership really has to worry about. Not too many years ago, there was a split within the leadership about how to deal with that pressure. That was 1989, and the event that we talk about is Tiananmen, where a good example of where a younger generation wanted to see changes and the leadership wasn't prepared to accept them, actually the leadership then split, you had reform element under Zhao Ziyang, and a more conservative element that Deng Xiaoping led, that basically crushed the opposition, but sustained the economic development.
Well, the U.S.-China relationship is a complex one. Our two societies, certainly economically, are highly interdependent. A million or more Chinese young people have studied in our universities, most of them go back to China, and so there's a positive level of interaction there that is the upside, but there is a high level of distrust, and there's been a recent study that documents concerns on the Chinese part, that while it sounds strange to us, that, we're trying to constrain China, we're trying to prevent its economic growth, its emergence as a world power, which, really, is beyond our capacity even if we wanted to do it. We're repeated American administration say we want a strong and prosperous China, yet from the Chinese side, there's this concern that we're opposed to. On the American side, as is evident in our public debates, there's feeling that the Chinese, particularly in the economic area, have not worked with a level playing field, concern about theft of intellectual property, currency manipulation, denying market access, all which are real issues.
The main concern of the leadership frankly, is internal stability. And we know that for many years their major concern has been maintaining a growth rate. We've seen, at the 10% level, they wanted it at least a 7% level, so they don't have an unemployment problem, that the people coming in from the rural areas do find jobs, much less, that the people who've been employed in the coastal provinces lose their jobs. So that, in my view, is going to be the major concern, the major focus, of this new leadership, and their direction, their view of their place in the world is really going to center around how their economic dealings with the world, how their territorial disputes with Japan, or whoever, are managed, but as they play to their internal situation, and the need for stability rooted in economic growth.