Boston University’s Joseph Fewsmith discusses the governance problems China’s new leaders will face over the next decade.

With Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang now officially in place as president and premier, China’s new leaders face a growing list of challenges in governing a rapidly growing economy. Joseph Fewsmith, professor of international relations and political science at Boston University, spoke with China Business Review Editor Christina Nelson about how structural problems have led to unrest and corruption, and how President Xi’s anti-corruption drive is focusing on the wrong problem.

How is this leadership transition, in your view, different from when Hu Jintao came to power?

Fewsmith: The major difference is that when Hu Jintao came to power in 2002, the Politburo Standing Committee was expanded from seven members to nine. At the same time, Jiang Zemin held onto the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission for two years. So there was a sense right from the beginning that Hu Jintao was not fully in control. Despite his various initiatives—the “scientific development view” and “harmonious society”—he was not able to accomplish very much over the course of 10 years. The Politburo Standing Committee has now been reduced to seven people again, and it appears to be a group that Xi Jinping can work with. Hu stepped down as chairman of the Central Military Commission, so Xi appears to have a freer hand than Hu did a decade ago.

Second, I think there is a sense of crisis, stemming not only from the growing inequalities and injustices in the system but also from the Bo Xilai case. Bo Xilai obviously tapped into widespread discontent within the system, but at the elite and popular levels. Bo Xilai is now in jail awaiting trial, but Xi needs to respond to the discontent Bo exposed.

Third, I think Jiang Zemin played too prominent of a role at the Party Congress. I think he played a very prominent role when Hu Jintao came to power 10 years ago, and I think he and the other elders played a very prominent role in organizing the leadership that he [Jiang] wanted. The reason that bothers me is that it makes it more difficult to create stable institutions, and I think that that’s one of the things China needs.

You talk about these governance problems in your new book, The Logic and Limits of Political Reform in China. Can you characterize these governance problems and how these new leaders can either help or hurt those problems?

Fewsmith: When you look at the local level, local leaders are basically given tasks to perform, and that is largely couched in terms of economic growth. The higher-level officials are not particularly picky about how lower-level officials pursue development. You give them a tremendous amount of responsibility, but also total power to go with that. What the local-level officials are trying to do is basically satisfy their bosses, the next people up the line, and that inevitably puts their own interests in conflict with the people they’re governing.

Where we’ve seen that conflict over the last several years is when local officials invite companies to invest in their areas—to build manufacturing plants or other investment projects—and such investors need land. So local officials basically kick the people off the land, take the land, sell it, and pocket at least some significant portion of the profits. Such actions are what cause the so-called mass incidents. If you go around and ask people, “What do you think of your government?” you get relatively high marks, so it’s not a generalized “I want democracy” or that kind of discontent. But when somebody takes your land or does something else that affects you personally, then you get angry. What is interesting is that there are a lot of incidents that start with some specific conflict, but then all the sudden you have 10,000 people participating. I have to assume that such people have built up grievances that sometimes they’re not even particularly aware of, but then something happens and they take to the streets.

Boston University Professor Joseph Fewsmith spoke to business leaders about China’s leadership transition at the US-China Business Council’s Forecast conference in January. (

What do you think of the rise of mass incidents among China’s middle class?

Fewsmith: In the book, I generally focus on rural areas, in Sichuan province in particular, because it pioneered a lot of the political reforms. I think the middle-class demonstrations that we are seeing are quite interesting. There were protests at a plant up in Dalian and there was the others in Xiamen and Shanghai. The middle class is still a fairly dependent middle class—because even private enterprise has to be politically connected—so most people don’t have the freedom to go out and protest because they could be punished. Nevertheless, we are seeing middle-class residents protesting various projects, particularly ones that people fear will bring environmental damage. I think that those are things that really put pressure on the government, but we have not yet seen such protests leading to broader demands for accountability.

One of the reasons you get these demonstrations is nobody trusts the court system, so residents end up protesting rather than suing. I really do think that legal reform and a degree of judicial independence would do wonders for China. Most cases are simply not political. They are conflicts of one sort or another just as in any other country, so why does the party secretary always have to call the judge and tell him how to decide the case?

What is your assessment of Xi Jinping so far?

Fewsmith: He comes across as very self-confident, and he’s kind of a blunt speaker. I think the Chinese people have responded very positively to him. He raises issues of national rejuvenation, the China dream, and he hits nationalistic notes that people respond favorably to. Of course people are very happy to see him come out so strongly against corruption. From my perspective the problem is that his focus is very much on the party, and tightening the party structures. And if my analysis is correct that’s part of the problem—it’s precisely what prevents judicial independence. I guess I can’t see why a local official in Sichuan or someplace else would change his behavior in terms of development. You’re still going to have this conflict of interest between local officials and the population they are governing. I think there are ways of changing that, but I don’t see him articulating these issues yet. I think it’s going to be very interesting whether there will be a point, two, three, or four years from now, where the Chinese people will say he didn’t do what he said he was going to do.

I think one of the reasons Xi Jinping is coming out of the gates so fast and hitting these particular issues is there really is a need to try to restore public confidence in the political system, and I really see that as a result of the Bo Xilai case.

What are the internal and external challenges Xi will face in actually fighting corruption within the party and government?

Fewsmith: How do you build accountability? Local media, that’s one of the simplest ways. And despite the Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend) case I don’t think China is headed toward media freedom.

In some ways, the government response to (the New York Times story on former Premier Wen Jiabao’s wealth) should have been positive. Even though it’s foreign media, they’re exposing corruption. The New York Times was very careful to say this was about the ownership of assets, not about breaking laws and corruption. The government should say, “Thank you, you’ve addressed a serious problem and we need to address that through sunshine laws.”

Thinking five years down the road when five members of the Standing Committee will hit retirement age, do you have any predictions for how this will go?

Fewsmith: We do have Hu Chunhua and Sun Zhengcai on the Politburo as presumably the next generation of leaders. Are they already selected? Are we supposed to think that 20 years from now, Hu Chunhua will be retiring as general secretary? This would suggest a tremendous lack of flexibility in the party. So in some ways I hope that the system is more open to change; although if it’s open to change that opens all these internal bargaining issues.

The other question of course is the interests of different wings of the party. Jiang Zemin did, I think, meddle tremendously in deciding the makeup of this Standing Committee. He picked up a team that seems to be quite comfortable with Xi Jinping. But if you look at the people eligible for promotion in five years—including Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao—are they going to be as comfortable with Xi? And Xi with them? Or are you going to have more conflict in the Standing Committee? Or conflict deciding who should enter the Standing Committee? So it’s a very strange thing when you set up a system where you know that after only five years you have to renegotiate all these political agreements.

(Photo by Bert van Dijk via Flickr)

Posted by Christina Nelson