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Getting Smarter on China

The United States Needs to Understand the Next Generation of Chinese Leaders to Solve Shared Challenges

SOURCE: AP/Aliosha Marquez

China's Vice President Xi Jinping waves during a welcoming ceremony in Chile in 2011.

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See also: China’s Forthcoming Political Transition by Melanie Hart; China’s Quiet Role in Pressuring Iran by Rudy deLeon, Brian Katulis, Peter Juul, Ali Fisher; Managing Insecurities Across the Pacific by Nina Hachigian; Shining a Light on U.S.-China Clean Energy Cooperation by Melanie Hart

President Barack Obama next week is meeting the man who will steer China forward over the next decade. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping is clearly a man that Americans need to get to know.

Vice President Xi will almost certainly become the next General Secretary of the Communist Party of China—China’s top leadership position—in November 2012. His visit will offer a taste of how the United States will interact with the next generation of Communist party leaders.

Xi Jinping will hold China’s highest political position, but he will not rule the country alone. Back in Beijing China’s current leaders are negotiating furiously among themselves to select a crop of seven to nine cadres that will serve as the country’s next “board of directors” on the Politburo Standing Committee. The candidates for those positions are a fascinating group. They include a well-known finance guru, an apparent reformist who recently made press for his delicate handling of land protests in Guangdong, and a red-flag-waving nationalist who is making a movie about his mafia-busting campaigns in the Chinese west even as his chief lieutenant disappears under a cloud of controversy.

As this intriguing group is preparing to take the helm in Beijing, the United States is realizing that the China we are dealing with today is not the China we have grown accustomed to over the past few decades. U.S. policymakers are waking up from a long post-September 11 war in the Middle East and realizing that, while our attentions were focused elsewhere, China has grown and changed dramatically. To keep up, our foreign and economic policy approaches to China will have to change as well.

On the economic front Chinese enterprises are no longer serving only as cheap workshops for manufacturing U.S. products. For years China also has been throwing massive resources into training engineers in select industries of the future and building world-class research and development centers—particularly in the clean energy sector. Now those investments are paying off. China has suddenly gotten much better at producing the types of technologies that our nation is used to dominating. That could be good for the United States in some ways but very tricky in others. To complicate matters, China’s national government in Beijing and those at the provincial and local levels are giving Chinese companies an edge over U.S. companies by deploying state capitalist policies that our current trade institutions are not designed to address.

In the foreign policy realm, China is becoming increasingly important to the United States not only in the Asia-Pacific region but also globally. On the Iranian nuclear issue, for example, pressing Beijing to reduce its support for the Iranian regime continues to be a major part of U.S. strategy; yet in Syria, China’s recent veto in the United Nations of Arab League-backed action against the brutal Assad regime made U.N. action impossible. Indeed, in Libya, in Sudan, everywhere U.S. diplomats look China is there.

On the positive side, we are also seeing that China is beginning to understand that it is in their interest to not be isolated on global issues such as Iran and nuclear nonproliferation. This development is in part the result of U.S. actions that include moves to persuade China to act in the interest of the global community.

These steps by the Obama administration include actions to address the concerns of our allies in the Asia-Pacific region. In the military sphere, for example, Chinese naval and fishing vessels have grown increasingly bold in their skirmishes with the U.S. navy in the South China Sea, where coastlines are shared by several of our key allies. What’s more, the Chinese military has demonstrated it can use ground-based missiles to shoot down satellites in outer space and is using cyber tactics to penetrate the United States in ways that we are just now scrambling to figure out how to deal with.

But at the same time China is growing strong in an international sphere, the country is facing greater challenges internally. The Chinese Communist Party is struggling to figure out how to maintain their authoritarian system in a society that is becoming increasingly more dynamic. China now has more Internet users than any other country in the world—and these netizens are exerting more pressure on their leaders than ever before. Unlike the Tiananmen era, Chinese leaders no longer perfectly control information. Their citizens are passing information around so quickly that the regime can barely keep up, forcing them to pay more attention to public issues that the people care about such as environmental protection, food safety, and even landholding rights.

This flood of information about leadership corruption and other injustices in China is spurring even more local protests. While Beijing works hard to make sure these local protests stay isolated, it’s unclear whether that strategy will always work.

China’s next generation of leaders is well aware of all of these problems. They are learning different ways to use the public attention to their advantage over their rivals. Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai is the most obvious example. Bo is constantly courting media attention, turning local politics into a fascinating soap opera that even the foreign press is becoming addicted to. Just this week Bo’s local chief of police—who is well known across the country as the “mafia buster” who wears a bullet-proof vest and carries a gun everywhere he goes—reportedly fled to the U.S. consulate to seek asylum after an apparent falling out with Bo. Now the local government—which reports to Bo Xilai—claims the runaway police chief has been sent off to receive some form of “vacation-style treatment” for job-related stress.

For the first time since the 1949 revolution, the Chinese press is covering every twist and turn of this and other newsworthy political developments, which is opening up the black box of elite Chinese politics in ways that we have never seen before. That will be critical not only for the Chinese public but also for the United States because the only way we can get smarter about dealing with this rising China is to get smarter about dealing with the Chinese leaders and the Chinese people themselves.

On major issues—trade, foreign policy, and potentially military relations—interests within China could grow increasingly diverse, not only among the Chinese people but—at least in some cases—possibly among the core leaders themselves. That can present both pitfalls and opportunities for the United States. Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States, then, marks the beginning in many ways of a new relationship with China.

Getting to know Xi and his colleagues and rivals, as well as his nation’s problems and promise, is very important.

Rudy deLeon in Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. Melanie Hart is a Policy Analyst on China Energy and Climate Policy at the Center. Ali Fisher is a Policy Analyst and Manager of the Center’s China Studies program.

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