Gossip, Guanxi, and Guesswork: Time to Demystify the Chinese Leadership

The dynamics of Chinese politics have changed considerably under Xi Jinping. In “China’s Core Executive,” the first MERICS Paper on China, international China experts examine decision-making structures and processes in Xi’s China. But before we start to debate leadership in China, Jessica Batke challenges us to check our own frame of reference for analysing Chinese politics and policy.

Originally published on the MERICS website

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the views of the U.S. Government or the Department of State.

We’ve tended to view Chinese policy and politics through the prism of guanxi (connections) and factions—somewhat specialized “China” categories that help us make sense of the black box of Chinese leadership politics. But are we relying too heavily on terms like “guanxi” and “factions,” preventing us from thinking about Chinese politics in a more cross-cutting, relevant way?  

Recent research suggests that several of the categories we previously used to assign Chinese officials to a particular faction, such as birthplace, are not especially relevant.  The one category that has a significant effect on later hiring and promotion is whether or not two individuals have previously worked together.  Yet, even this seems quite similar to how hiring and promotion functions outside of China.  Are we prepared to say that previous personal connections or, especially, shared work experience are not major factors in promotions in Western democracies?   Or are we ready to start assigning Western leaders to particular factions because of their work histories?  There are certainly cases when China’s guanxi culture has unique effects on hiring and promotion.  But we should be cautious of discussing all personnel issues within that special, China-only framework—doing so elides possible useful points of comparison with other governments.

Mao ran a poor country, Xi administers a wealthy nation

A question I’m constantly asking myself is whether contemporary China shares more similarities with the China of 1950 or with a European country of today.  The rapid social, economic, technological, and, yes, political change over the last 65 years at least raises the question of whether it is relevant to think about the current Chinese leadership wholly in terms of past Chinese leaders.  General Secretary Xi Jinping, for example, has a lot more to manage and, in some ways, fewer options than his predecessors.  In stark contrast with Mao, who was running a poor, war-torn country with little to lose, Xi must administer an increasingly wealthy nation with an increasingly expectant population, and do so within the framework of the CCP as a “governing” rather than a “revolutionary” party.

Likewise, in the years before World War I, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson apparently “worked four hours a day, slept nine hours a night, [and] played golf regularly.” Clearly, the demands of running the United States 100 years ago are nothing like they are today.  China has undergone a similar national transformation in an even shorter timeframe.  We should therefore think through which of the goals, methods, and functions of contemporary Chinese leaders are directly comparable to those of previous generations.

Public policy trumps personal goals

The fact that the CCP has so far survived this sometimes-wrenching transformation does, however, tell us something about internal leadership priorities and struggles. Looking at all the different ways a state can fail, it is no small feat that China is still in one piece, let alone in an increasingly powerful international position. This suggests that, despite all the waste, corruption, and personal enrichment that have come along with CCP rule, the leadership since reform and opening has ultimately prioritised public policy over personal goals. This doesn’t mean that Chinese leaders are perfectly clean or altruistic. Nor does it mean that “public policy” in China translates into Western governance ideals such as a free press or robust protections for human rights. But it does mean that Chinese leaders have managed (sometimes by the slimmest of margins) to rise above political fighting to keep a grip on one of the world’s largest and most complex states.  

What does this mean for how we analyse Chinese leadership politics? Because we have limited access to Chinese leaders, we often use factional or institutional frameworks to help us speculate about a particular leader’s motivations. Our default assumption is that a leader supports a particular stance for factional or institutional reasons. But this view can overlook the role that individual agency plays in policy decisions, including perhaps forming looser networks of policy coalitions depending on the issue at hand—something more akin to what we might see in other types of governments.

A better starting point may be to ask what possible public policy (in the Chinese context) goals a leadership decision might have, and then to look for evidence why this may or may not be the case.  Leaders’ personal views, political intrigue, and bureaucratic infighting can all be incorporated into this framework—and sometimes they may end up being the entire story—but by prioritizing personal politics over policy as a starting point for our analysis, we may be missing a larger story.