WEAI Faculty Members Weigh in on the Leadership Change in China

On November 15, 2012 the Chinese Communist Party announced a once in a decade transition of power.  Xi Jinping was revealed as the new general secretary of China’s Communist Party, along with new members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) and Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. WEAI faculty members weigh in on what the leadership change in China means for relations in Asia and abroad.


Charles Armstrong

The Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences, Department of History; Director, Center for Korean Research

The New Chinese Leadership and Korea 

The new Chinese leadership line-up announced on Thursday is unlikely to depart from its predecessor’s policies toward the Korean peninsula in the near future. South Korea will continue to be one of China’s key economic partners in Asia. Xi Jinping visited South Korea twice, even before he became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. He has emphasized economic growth, stability, and the improvement of Chinese citizens’ lives; extensive and trade with and investment from South Korea are important for China’s continued growth. On the other hand, China will probably maintain its economic and political support for North Korea, in order to avert potential instability in Pyongyang and to counterbalance American influence in the region.  With China’s influence on Myanmar waning and the US “pivoting” to Asia, China wants to keep North Korea as a strategic ally, whatever reservations Beijing may have about North Korea’s often provocative behavior. At the same time, China will continue to nudge North Korea toward economic reform and opening, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may in fact be moving his country in that direction. For the time being, China will remain a firm supporter of the status quo on the Korean peninsula.

Potentially much more significant for change on the Korean peninsula is the presidential election in South Korea next month, which could bring in an administration much more oriented to engagement with North Korea than the current government of Lee Myung-bak.  Sino-South Korean cooperation – and competition – over the North would then increase substantially, after several years of China having a virtual monopoly over North Korea’s foreign economic relations. Despite the Chinese leadership’s cautious and conservative orientation, the dynamics of the relations among Beijing, Washington, Tokyo, Seoul and Pyongyang are likely to become more complex and volatile in the upcoming years.

Robert Barnett

Director, Modern Tibetan Studies Program

One of the challenges the new leadership will face is how to deal with tensions over religion and nationality. These have increased significantly in the last five years, with major unrest and violence in Xinjiang in 2009 and a long series of smaller but persistent protests by Tibetans since 2008. These have in turn increased the pressure on democratic governments to criticize China for its handling of these issues, making them a factor in the often tense relations between China and the international community, which in turn has led to bouts of reactive hyper-nationalism and protest within China against perceived foreign interference. There has been much talk among foreign commentators, and especially Tibetan exiles, about the potential influence of Xi Jinping's late father, Xi Zhongxun, who is said to have been relatively conciliatory towards the Dalai Lama, but no one knows if Xi's thinking is likely to be shaped by that of his father: there has been no such indication from Xi himself, and the widely reported stories that Xi is inclined towards reform and moderation on the Tibet issue are based on guesswork and hope.

But that doesn't mean those guesses are wrong - they might be right, and cannot be ruled out. In fact, Xi and other leaders are known to have set up small research teams over the last year or so to look into China's policies on Tibet and related issues. And there are certainly policy advisors in China who want to see a major shift in China's materialist approach to these questions, since current policies have sparked so much public conflict and have damaged China's international relations. But even if Xi and his team decided on a change in direction, it's likely that they would find it very difficult to get any changes past his relatively conservative colleagues, at least until the expected shift in the membership of the PBSC in 2017. The new leader in charge of nationality and religion till then is set to be Yu Zhengsheng, a former engineer who may be more likely to continue the current, largely counter-productive policy of using massive investment and construction, backed by military control, to speed up urbanization, encourage migration, and reshape local cultures in order to bring the frontier peoples to heel. The chances are very high that this policy will continue - but given how little outsiders know about the inner workings of the CCP elite, we should not rule out the possibility of unexpected change in China's handling of its nationality affairs.

Kay Shimizu

Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science

For only the second time in its history, the Communist Party of China completed an orderly transfer of power to the next generation of leaders.  At the risk of reading too much into this relatively new ritual, the new lineup of leaders appears to signify the beginning of a period of cautious adjustment.  None of the top seven are known to be aggressive reformers, but among them are sure-handed leaders who are decidedly more worldly and more communicative than their predecessors.  Today, much uncertainty surrounds China.  Domestically, unprecedented geographic mobility and demographic change have made China’s old social safety nets obsolete.  Territorial disputes over islands in nearby seas continue to simmer.  Internationally, the global market place has but a weak appetite for Chinese goods, forcing China to adjust its export-led growth model.  In times of such uncertainty, a cautious but steady hand at the helm should be a reassuring sight for China’s neighbors.    


For inquires, contact Rebecca Charney, Publications and Public Relations Coordinator at rc2803@columbia.edu or (212) 854-6396.