A Break In China's Communist Wall

Gordon G. Chang, 09.25.09, 12:01 AM EDT

The Fourth Plenum of the Party's 17th Central Committee ended on Sept. 18, and the big news is that virtually nothing happened during the four-day meeting of 357 top party members in Beijing. "Silence and inaction," one report termed the result. There was no post-meeting press conference, delegates were mum after the session ended and the official communiqué said almost nothing.

And why is this momentous? It is, perhaps, the most significant news to come out of China in years because it may mean that the world's largest political organization has ended two decades of internal unity and begun a long process of splintering.

The party almost fell from power during the Beijing Spring of 1989 because its leaders split over the Tiananmen demonstrations. Former leader Deng Xiaoping eventually ended the internal dissension, then crushed the protesters in the Square, and finally marginalized opponents to his rule. By doing so, he created the conditions for two decades of almost uninterrupted prosperity. His message to the comrades was that, above all else, party cadres had to stand united. And to ensure harmony in leadership circles, the crafty pragmatist picked not only his successor, Jiang Zemin, but also his successor's successor. Deng was dead for more than a half decade when Jiang, according to the master plan, gave way to Hu Jintao in November 2002 at the 16th Party Congress.

The world's China-watching community hailed the transfer of power from Jiang to Hu as "smooth" and praised the ability of the party to create internal rules and abide by them, in short, to institutionalize itself. The most important of these rules is a limit of two five-year terms for the general secretary, the top post in China's ruling organization. General Secretary Hu is in the second of his two terms and slated to step down in 2012.

Also important--crucial, actually--are the rules by which officials ascend to the top spot in the Communist Party hierarchy. Hu became a vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, which oversees the People's Liberation Army, at the Fourth Plenum of the 15th Central Committee, so most analysts believed his successor would be elevated to the same post at the meeting that ended last Friday, the Fourth Plenum of the 17th. It was assumed that Hu's successor would be Xi Jinping, the son of a close ally of Deng Xiaoping. Xi, however, is not Hu Jintao's choice--he would be a compromise among competing coalitions inside the Party. Hu wants Li Keqiang, an even less distinguished cadre.

Up until the middle of last week, it appeared that Xi had a lock on the top spot, and Li was being groomed as the country's next premier. Now, with the failure of Xi to take a position on the Central Military Commission, there seem, in addition to Xi and Li, to be other candidates in the race to be the next supremo.

So what's going on inside Zhongnanhai, the country's leadership compound in the center of Beijing? Except for Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping and a small circle of senior officials, few really know. What, then, do we know?

We know that, despite the fond hopes of many, China's Communist Party has not succeeded in institutionalizing itself. Analysts assumed that Hu Jintao's path to power set precedents that somehow hardened into "rules." Xi's failure to become a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission proves they have not. So why did analysts almost uniformly say he would get the promotion this time? They saw the party the way they wanted it to be, not the way it actually is.

It actually is, as Lou Dobbs says, "communist." And no communist ruling group in history has ever managed to regularize successions. There may be "rules," but they change all the time, depending on the outcome of the struggles among--and inside--the factions and groups engaged in a never-ending competition for power. The truth of the matter is this: We won't know who the next leader is--assuming there will be a next leader--until he or she emerges from behind the curtain at the 18th Party Congress--or until that individual takes over the top spot in some other fashion.

In retrospect, we should not have been surprised that the Fourth Plenum did not elevate Xi Jinping. The most recent issue of Kaifang, a Hong Kong magazine, ran a story saying that he submitted his "resignation" as "crown prince" because he did not want to go down in history as the regime's "kingdom loser." Whether or not the story is credible--it could be an effort to wound Mr. Xi and thereby help other contenders--there have been recent rumors of intense infighting over succession. For instance, it appears that China's "fifth generation" leaders--those who are slated to take over in three years--are upset at Premier Wen Jiabao for over-stimulating the economy. The concern is that Wen is buying current growth with tactics that are creating insoluble problems--just when the new batch of leaders enter the highest positions of responsibility in 2012.

From the outside, we do not know whether the rumors are true. In all probability, much of what we hear is not. But in communist systems, there is never smoke without fire. We can see there is now a crack in the senior leadership group of the Communist Party, and, should the economy look like it will falter, the fissure is bound to split open China's one-party state.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. He writes a weekly column for Forbes.