The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China.
Author: Kerry Brown
Published by: I.B. Tauris, London, 2014, 244pp, 20 [pounds sterling].
This interesting book begins with the wholly remarkable 2011 story of Gu Kailai, the wife of Bo Xilai, party secretary of Chongqing and then rising political star in China. Gu was convicted of the murder of Neil Haywood, a British businessman. She would later claim that Haywood had threatened the safety of her child. Gu Kailai is alleged to have met Haywood in a hotel room, poisoned his drink with cyanide, left him ailing in his room and instructed the hotel staff not to enter his room. Haywood's body was not discovered until days later. Bo Xilai also faced his own serious accusations of corruption. Whatever the facts of the matter are, Bo very quickly found his career was over when it had once looked like he was destined for higher honours.
It is an instructive thought experiment to consider what the New Zealand public knows about the leadership of our largest trading partner. People are likely aware of Xi Jinping as China's president, but would likely struggle to name the premier (Li Keqiang). Would they know how the roles of president and premier differed? (The premier position is largely a crisis management role, according to Brown.) Would they be able to appreciate the difference between the Standing Committee and the Politburo? Addressing a lot of this and more, Kerry Brown, Australian based academic and former British diplomat, offers some intriguing conclusions on the nature of power in the Chinese system.
When it comes to assessing the Chinese leadership, without access to the primary and secondary sources that form the usual raw material for historians and political scientists, how does an author cast judgments? (Domestic attempts in China to comment on Chinese leaders can come badly
unstuck. Brown recounts the story of the commentator Yu Jie, who was put under house arrest and eventually went into exile in the United States for writing a critical story on a previous Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, and flippantly calling him 'China's Best Actor'.) A bit like the shadows in a cave, in Plato's famous analogy, a lot has to be inferred from key events; such as the story of Gu Kailai above.
Brown looks at one of the prevailing views of Chinese politics, which is to divide the elites into 'factions'. Both Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping are the children of Communist Party leaders, as are indeed many other members of the current Chinese elite. These are the so-called 'princelings', a term that now finds itself coming into a lot of media commentary, and also the title of the book under review. But Brown questions whether this 'aristocracy' forms a faction in any meaningful sense of that term. Other factions that have been mooted over the years are 'Shanghai' (often associated with Jiang Zemin), the China Youth League, the oil faction and graduates of Qinghua University. Brown prefers to view power in China as revolving much more around particular personality networks, which some Chinese leaders have been more successful in harnessing than others. Echoing Michel Foucault, Brown notes that 'power is akin to a force or kind of energy in the world', and the Communist Party is a coalition of interests.
Brown also offers some reflections on how much the backgrounds of Chinese leaders have changed over time. Setting aside the princeling issue, there has been a noted change in the backgrounds of Standing Committee and Politburo members. First and second generation leaders were revolutionary and military figures, who eventually made way for engineers and those who had studied hard sciences. The current (fifth generation) leadership is the most educated in the history of the People's Republic; it is also a leadership that has had a lot of exposure to the outside world. (As an aside, Xi Jinping's 'return trip' in 2012 to his host family in Iowa was a public relations master stroke, if the sort of media attention it garnered in the United States is any measure.) The Standing Committee members all have quite interesting backgrounds. Li Keqiang, the first lawyer to make the Standing Committee, is a fan of some of the lesser known works of the likes of Adam Smith and de Tocqueville. Wang Qishan is the standing committee's first formally trained historian. Brown also emphasises how determined the more recent generations of Chinese leaders have been to avoid the 'Maoist utopianism' of the Cultural Revolution.
Brown offers some reflections on how leaders are identified and how they ascend. There is also a comparison to the Vatican's process that Brown makes in explaining leadership selection. Brown notes the 'multiple ironies' in this given the tensions that exist between the Chinese Communist Party and the Vatican (which recognises Taiwan). Is it really an irony that two institutions that may have some similarity of selection process are at odds with each other? We could also reflect on the limitations of such an analogy in the first place.
This is a well-written and fascinating account of the structures and personalities that run China. The strength of this book is that it is very accessible, which one senses is exactly the intention of the author.
Dr. Anthony Smith is in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent DPMC or the New Zealand government.
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|Publication:||New Zealand International Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 1, 2015|
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