By Sungtae “Jacky” Park Senior Staff Writer November 12, 2012

China is about to undergo a change in leadership that is expected to be less powerful than its predecessor.

On November 8, China officially began its once-in-a-decade leadership transition with the week-long 18th Party Congress. Within the span of the next one to two years, roughly two-thirds of China’s leadership is expected to undergo changes, and the so-called “fifth generation” will take up the reins with Xi Jinping as the leader. Despite the world’s perception that China is a rising power, its incoming leadership is expected to be weaker than its predecessor and will face increasing difficulty in pushing for reforms and dealing with both its domestic and foreign policy challenges.

The Chinese government’s weakness is structural in that it is consensus-based, collective leadership, which effectively prevents consolidation of power under a single strong leader. Charisma and individuality are frowned upon, while inconspicuousness and group mentality are praised. The result, however, has been that the two “paramount leaders” after Deng Xiaoping –Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – were both considered weak leaders and merely “first among equals.”

Compounding the problem is the fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has split into two loosely-affiliated factions, despite its show of unity in the eyes of the public. On one hand, there are those who are business-friendly and support further privatization of the Chinese economy and inflows of foreign capital, arguing that economic growth is more important than socioeconomic equality. On the other hand, factions often consisting of former Chinese Communist Youth League members support state-led measures to lessen socioeconomic inequality even at the expense of economic efficiency. The two contending groups are evenly matched in influence. Resulting deadlock has made policy-making in Beijing slow and somewhat ineffective, especially with regard to reforms.

The status quo within the CCP is expected to persist beyond 2012 and perhaps solidify even further. This was made clear when Zhang Dejiang, a member of the CCP’s “princeling” clique – a sub-faction comprising of the children of high-ranking Party officials – replaced the fallen politician Bo Xilai, who is also a princeling, after the infamous Wang Lijun incident. Bo’s enemies could have used his fall from power to put in place one of their own in his position but decided against it, showcasing the Party’s preference for political stability over power.

Moreover, the next paramount leader Xi Jinping is expected to be even weaker than his predecessor. Xi was selected to succeed Hu Jintao by a compromise among different factions within the CCP without any sponsorship from a major revolutionary figure such as Deng Xiaoping, unlike Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Even Hu, despite Deng’s endorsement, was perceived as a weaker leader than Jiang due to the growing strength of the factions within the CCP.

One unintended consequence that could result from a divided Party with a weak leader is the growth of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) influence. The PLA is officially subordinate to the CCP, and the Party seeks to maintain firm control of the military through the advancement process and inclusion of political officers throughout the ranks. Yet, a political scientist with high-level ties to the Party quietly noted recently that “the military is encroaching on political affairs.” Japan’s annual defense white paper released in July, which highlights the country’s defense priorities for the upcoming year, also voiced the same concern regarding the growing political influence of the PLA, which tends to be far more nationalistic than the civilian authority.

The new leadership is likely to have more difficulty dealing with persisting internal problems than the Hu-Wen government. The incoming Chinese leadership faces several serious socioeconomic challenges, such as a slowing economy, rampant corruption, and environmental issues, to name a few. Despite the awareness that reforms are urgently in demand, the Chinese leadership faces powerful yet resistant interest groups, such as powerful state-owned enterprises. The ten years under Hu Jintao have already been dubbed “the lost decade” because of how little progress was made under his administration (although Hu himself calls it a “Golden Decade”). Lack of reforms could potentially lead to serious social unrest and “collapse of the Party and the fall of the state,” in Hu’s own words to the Party congress. With a divided Party and a weaker paramount leader, however, it is very questionable whether the fifth generation will be able to address the domestic problems.

On the foreign policy front, there are two possibilities. First, the CCP could attempt to direct the social angst resulting from internal problems against an external party, such as the United States or Japan. The nationalistic PLA could also try to take advantage of the weak leadership to pursue its own aggressive foreign policy agenda, exacerbating the geopolitical tension in the Asia-Pacific. The second possibility is that China’s internal problems could force the weak leadership to focus its energy inward, more or less preventing the country from conducting an active foreign policy.

Given the weakness of the fifth generation leadership and the mounting domestic and foreign challenges it faces, the next ten years will be a test to see whether China can truly emerge as a future great power.

Sungtae “Jacky” Park is a M.A. Security Policy Studies student at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He has previously published for CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) and Brandeis International Journal.

Photo courtesy of World Economic Forum via Flickr.