Dec. 27 (Bloomberg) -- The year 2012 will go into the history books as one of contrasting transitions. China’s five-year cycle for Communist Party congresses and leadership turnover overlapped with the U.S.’s four-year electoral calendar. And if that once-in-20-years coincidence wasn’t enough, Egypt’s rocky shift from dictatorship to democracy continues to remind us of what transition looks like in the absence of a predictable institutional framework.
The confluence of Chinese and American transitions marks an extraordinary historic development. The last time this happened, we might not have been able to predict the impeachment of Bill Clinton or the Supreme Court deciding the 2000 presidential election in Bush v. Gore. But any reasonable observer would have expected that presidential elections would continue in their ordinary course, and that the crises associated with impeachment and an uncertain electoral outcome would be resolved in a regular fashion, not by palace coups or purges.
By contrast, in 1992 it would have been essentially impossible to predict that China would soon embark on a regularized process for replacing the leadership of the Communist Party based on generational turnover. Five-year plans were nothing new -- the Chinese had inherited them from the Soviets -- but top leadership change didn’t follow that regular clock. Neither the oscillations of power that accompanied the Cultural Revolution nor the Tiananmen upheavals (both before and after the events of June 4, 1989) followed a predictable calendar.
Although the generation of Deng Xiaoping officially “retired” in 1992, no one thought this meant its members would actually relinquish political authority. In short, China was still ruled as a quasi-dictatorship. As a result, it was plagued by dictatorship-style uncertainty about who would come to power next, when, and how.
Over the past two decades, the situation has changed fundamentally. Gradually, after Deng’s death, it has become normal for China’s leaders to stand aside when their decade in office is done. As a result, observers in China and outside can now speculate with some confidence about who will come to power and when. Everyone knew that Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang would form the center of the new administration more than two years before they assumed office.
At the same time, the selection of officials throughout the Communist Party apparatus increasingly takes account of performance, not only loyalty to party discipline. Although recent studies suggest -- unsurprisingly -- that the meritocracy is far from perfect, it is broadly understood that the party members who specialize in the selection process try to advance cadres’ careers based on a mix of their talents, accomplishments, networks and commitment to the party.
Indeed, it is reasonable to infer that China’s most senior leadership engaged in a remarkable experiment. Through the system of internal selection and generational turnover, the party is trying to solve the problem of transitions without relying either on democratic elections or pure hereditary power. There are many sons and daughters of senior party members whose family connections have aided their rise, but to be a princeling isn’t enough: You also have to be good.
The upshot of these changes is that while China is still authoritarian, it is no longer a dictatorship. Dictators don’t cede power voluntarily, as the Arab Spring reminds us. And if a new dictator doesn’t emerge, the system can be thrown into near-chaos -- a process still playing out in Egypt.
Some observers in 2012 thought that the Communist Party apparatus was so focused on the transition -- on figuring out who was in and who was out -- that its leaders neglected pressing economic concerns. That might be true. Yet it isn’t so different from the situation in the U.S., where the direction of the economy and the precarious fiscal situation took a back seat for most of the long presidential campaign. Stable transitions tend to be elaborate, and elaborate transitions take time, effort and money. At least the Chinese didn’t waste upward of $2 billion on campaign advertising.
The new reality of transitional stability in China tells us something crucial about how the new leadership will govern. Hard-won stability is an asset that the leadership has inherited and will not want to squander. Rapid change of any kind will therefore be anathema. Conservatism, not rapid reform, will be the order of the day.
Deng’s generation faced a major legitimacy challenge as the Soviet Union collapsed and traditional communist ideology was shown to be bankrupt. A serious crisis demanded bold measures, and the changes were far-reaching and rapid. Now, the party’s leaders have much more to lose -- including the tremendous asset of predictable transitions.
Of course, even conservative leaders have to keep their base satisfied. Xi has closer ties to the People’s Liberation Army than did his predecessors, and so is likely to be more hawkish. This closeness is reflected in his immediate assumption of the reins of the military -- unlike the last president, who waited two years. Xi probably won’t rapidly militarize the conflict with Japan around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands -- that would be insufficiently conservative -- but with the army in his camp, he also isn’t going to back down.
Yet here, too, China’s stability coming out of transition is historically noteworthy. Xi needs the military, but he doesn’t fear it in the way that Egypt’s Mohamed Mursi must fear the army that both produced and deposed his predecessor. When it comes to civilian control of the military, China is now more like the U.S. than like a developing-world dictatorship.
China isn’t on the royal road to democracy or to capitalism without major state direction. But in 2012 it reaped the benefits of its historic move away from dictatorship -- and in historical and comparative terms, that’s impressive enough.
(Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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