House of Commons Research: China’s domestic politics and foreign policy

On Thursday 19 January 2017, the House of Commons Library published “China’s domestic politics and foreign policy“, an exploratory analysis of trends – drawing on the views of selected experts – in the domestic politics and foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China.

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Summary of report

Domestic politics

Since becoming president in 2012, Xi Jinping appears to have accumulated much more power and authority than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, ever did during his decade in office (2002-12). But the centralisation of power around Xi since 2012 could as easily reflect weakness as strength.

Xi Jinping leads a Communist Party whose legitimacy is arguably shallower than ever before. The greatest single threat to that legitimacy is high levels of official corruption. Xi has made anti-corruption the central plank of his domestic policy. These steps are intended to strengthen it in the longer-term and render it fit to retain the political monopoly it has enjoyed since 1949.

The attempt to rejuvenate the party may also be involving some reversal of processes of ‘institutionalisation’ – the creation of rules to guide political and administrative behaviour, including over leadership succession – which analysts have detected over recent decades. But for some observers the degree of institutionalisation has never been particularly deep.

One view is that contestation and cooperation between different factions remains the best way of understanding what is going on in the party beneath the surface. But others are less convinced, viewing things as more fluid and informal, with networks and kinship relations playing a more crucial role than factions.

The party does still have credit in the bank with the Chinese people. Although there have been economic warning signs in recent years, overall growth rates have remained high enough to maintain acquiescence. High-levels of public discontent about the increasingly predatory behaviour of some party officials at the local level do not yet appear to be translating into discontent against officials at the centre – even though they are often equally implicated.

The spectre of the collapse of the Soviet Union is never far from the minds of the party leadership. From that has come a heightened intolerance of those who, in its view, threaten the future of the system in China. This perspective has triggered the most severe human rights crack-down for many years.

As we approach the half-way point in the ten-year ‘leadership cycle’ that was apparently established under Hu Jintao, we might reasonably expect the party’s 19th Congress in late-2017 to offer some insights on the succession. But there are still no formal rules that govern the succession process and Xi may yet decide that he would like to stay on beyond 2022. One indication of how it is going to play out may be whether two possible successors from the ‘sixth generation’ – both 53 years old – are promoted at the Congress to the party’s top body, the Standing Committee. They are Sun Zhengcai, the party secretary of Chongqing Province, and Hu Chunhua, the party secretary of Guangdong Province.

Foreign policy

There continues to be much debate about the goals and objectives underpinning China’s foreign policy today. The key point of contention is over whether China wants to supplant the US at the global level, achieve overall parity or is happy to play second-fiddle, with the important proviso that its ‘core interests’ in Asia are recognised.

Some have argued that the Chinese leadership views the country as “both a great power and a rising power at the same time”. Others claim that in many ways China’s approach to foreign policy is profoundly pragmatic, upholding and sustaining global rules where they “make life easier”. In this view, China is the “ultimate utilitarian power”, with no aspirations to “overwhelm the rest of the world”.

Maybe – but China does seem to have some non-negotiable ‘bottom lines’ on foreign policy. Least negotiable of all is the ‘One China’ policy, under which Taiwan’s future can only be as part of the People’s Republic of China, although it remains willing to allow for different interpretations of what it means,.

If this policy is seriously called into question by the new US Administration under President Donald Trump, China’s approach to foreign policy could shift rapidly away from pragmatism.

Future prospects

In 2015, the experienced China expert David Shambaugh was widely criticised when he announced the beginning of the end of the Communist system in China.

‘System failure’ in China is widely considered a very unlikely prospect for now, including by Western governments. But such dramatic reversals nearly always are – until they happen. For all China’s achievements over the past 40 years and the opportunities that many experts say lie ahead, complacency would be unwise. The Chinese leadership certainly is not.

What about democratisation? Under Xi Jinping, the odds on China evolving towards liberal democracy, as some hoped and anticipated a decade or so ago, appear to have lengthened significantly. This leaves the most likely scenario a combination of attempts at proactive reform and reactive “muddling through”.

But the risk factors are not purely domestic in nature. Now that China is a global political and economic player, the impact on it of international events inevitably deepens. There is also an increasingly direct connection between the foreign policy achievements of the Communist Party and its domestic legitimacy. A major crisis in the US-China relationship could destabilise the country. Another severe global economic down-turn might have a similar impact.

Supporting documents
A Political and Economic Introduction to China (2006 Library briefing paper) ( PDF, 929.18 KB)
China: new political directions under a new leadership? (2013 Library briefing paper) ( PDF, 70.46 KB)