China's Team of Rivals

A financial meltdown in China promises to test the Communist Party's power in ways not seen since Tiananmen. But theirs is a house divided, as princelings take on populists and Pekinologists try to make sense of it all. Will this team built for economic success implode once the money dries up? An insider's guide to the leaders at China's controls.

The two dozen senior politicians who walk the halls of Zhongnanhai, the compound of the Chinese Communist Party's leadership in Beijing, are worried. What was inconceivable a year ago now threatens their rule: an economy in freefall. Exports, critical to China's searing economic growth, have plunged. Thousands of factories and businesses, especially those in the prosperous coastal regions, have closed. In the last six months of 2008, 10 million workers, plus 1 million new college graduates, joined the already gigantic ranks of the country's unemployed. During the same period, the Chinese stock market lost 65 percent of its value, equivalent to $3 trillion. The crisis, President Hu Jintao said recently, "is a test of our ability to control a complex situation, and also a test of our party's governing ability."

With this rapid downturn, the Chinese Communist Party suddenly looks vulnerable. Since Deng Xiaoping initiated economic reforms three decades ago, the party's legitimacy has relied upon its ability to keep the economy running at breakneck pace. If China is no longer able to maintain a high growth rate or provide jobs for its ever growing labor force, massive public dissatisfaction and social unrest could erupt. No one realizes this possibility more than the handful of people who steer China's massive economy. Double-digit growth has sheltered them through a SARS epidemic, massive earthquakes, and contamination scandals. Now, the crucial question is whether they are equipped to handle an economic crisis of this magnitude -- and survive the political challenges it will bring.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic, and the ruling party is no longer led by one strongman, like Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping. Instead, the Politburo and its Standing Committee, China's most powerful body, are run by two informal coalitions that compete against each other for power, influence, and control over policy. Competition in the Communist Party is, of course, nothing new. But the jockeying today is no longer a zero-sum game in which a winner takes all. It is worth remembering that when Jiang Zemin handed the reins to his successor, Hu Jintao, in 2002, it marked the first time in the republic's history that the transfer of power didn't involve bloodshed or purges. What's more, Hu was not a protégé of Jiang's; they belonged to competing factions. To borrow a phrase popular in Washington these days, post-Deng China has been run by a team of rivals.

This internal competition was enshrined as party practice a little more than a year ago. In October 2007, President Hu surprised many China watchers by abandoning the party's normally straightforward succession procedure and designating not one but two heirs apparent. The Central Committee named Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang -- two very different leaders in their early 50s -- to the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, where the rulers of China are groomed. The future roles of these two men, who will essentially share power after the next party congress meets in 2012, have since been refined: Xi will be the candidate to succeed the president, and Li will succeed Premier Wen Jiabao. The two rising stars share little in terms of family background, political association, leadership skills, and policy orientation. But they are each heavily involved in shaping economic policy -- and they are expected to lead the two competing coalitions that will be relied upon to craft China's political and economic trajectory in the next decade and beyond.

One thing is for sure: They have the profoundly difficult task of quickly and effectively transforming the country's long-standing model of export-led development. That task will require a delicate balance of innovative reforms, further market liberalization, and occasionally, strong government intervention to reshape China's economy into one driven largely by domestic demand. It is a daunting challenge, particularly when the men at the helm differ so profoundly. There are bound to be power struggles. But there is also a good chance that these everyday rivals, understanding that the party's survival hangs in the balance, will put aside infighting to guide China out of the crisis.

The team of rivals arrangement is not a choice, but a new necessity for the Chinese leadership. In elevating both Xi and Li in 2007, Hu signaled the importance of the different constituencies each represents and the belief that only consensus-building will successfully forestall serious political upheaval in the so-called fifth generation of leaders, of which Xi and Li are members. The idea of turning rivals into allies "for the sake of the greater good," as Abraham Lincoln put it, has been widely cited in the Chinese media. A recent article published in China Youth Daily, one of the most popular newspapers in the country, called the "team of rivals" (zhengdi tuandui) a "brilliant idea to achieve political compromise in order to maximize common interest and political capital for survival."

The two groups can be identified as the "populists" and the "elitists." The populists are currently led by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Members of their core group, including Li Keqiang, Director of Party Organization Li Yuanchao, and Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang, are known as tuanpai, after the Chinese Communist Youth League through which they advanced their careers. Most tuanpai -- they now make up 23 percent of the Central Committee and 32 percent of the Politburo -- served as local and provincial leaders, often in poor inland provinces, and many have expertise in propaganda and legal affairs. President Hu is himself a tuanpai, and the leaders of this faction are widely regarded as his longtime confidants; most of them worked directly under Hu in the early 1980s, when he headed the youth league. Tuanpai are known for their organizational and propaganda skills, but they are lacking when it comes to handling the international economy. Their credentials weren't as highly valued in the Jiang Zemin era, when foreign investment and economic globalization were stressed above all else, but they are considered critical now as the risks of social unrest and political tensions increase.

The elitist coalition was born in that Jiang era, and though its two current leaders -- Wu Bangguo, chairman of the national legislature, and Jia Qinglin, head of a national political advisory body -- are little known outside China, they are among the country's highest-ranking political leaders. Members of the core group of the fifth generation elitists, including Xi Jinping, Vice Premier Wang Qishan, and Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, are known as princelings because they are the children of former high-ranking officials. The fathers of Xi, Wang, and Bo, for example, all once served as vice premiers. Princelings command 28 percent of the seats in the Politburo today. Most princelings grew up in the richer coastal regions and pursued careers in finance, trade, foreign affairs, and technology. Although patron-client ties are not always strong among the princelings themselves, the shared need to protect their interests, especially in a time of growing public resentment against nepotism, is what binds them together.

Of the six members of the fifth generation serving on the Politburo today, three are tuanpai and three are princelings. The policy differences between these factions are as significant as the contrasts in their backgrounds. To a great extent, their differences reflect the country's competing socioeconomic forces: Princelings aim to advance the interests of entrepreneurs and the emerging middle class, while the tuanpai often call for building a harmonious society, with more attention to vulnerable social groups such as farmers, migrant workers, and the urban poor.

The platforms of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, for example, are strikingly divergent. Xi's enthusiasm for market liberalization and the continued development of the private sector is well known to the international business community. Not surprisingly, his primary policy concerns include making the economy more efficient, keeping GDP growth high, and deepening China's integration into the world economy. Xi is particularly interested in keeping wealthy elites in China's eastern coastal region happy.

By contrast, Li Keqiang is more concerned about the plight of the country's unemployed. He has made affordable housing more widely available and understands the importance of developing a rudimentary social safety net, beginning with the provision of basic healthcare. The rejuvenation of the northeastern provinces, China's old industrial base and one of its most labor-intensive areas, appears to be Li's regional focus. For Li, reducing economic disparities is far more urgent than enhancing economic efficiency. These diverging policy priorities between Xi and Li will likely grow in importance as the men respond to pressing economic questions, such as how China should react to foreign pressure on the value of the yuan and how the government should proceed with its stimulus plan.

Despite their many differences, the fifth generation of tuanpai and princelings share a common trauma: They are part of China’s "lost generation." Born after the founding of the People's Republic, they were teenagers when the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966. They lost the opportunity for formal schooling as a result of the political turmoil, and many of them were the "sent-down youths," young men and women who were moved from cities to rural areas and who worked for many years as farmers.

Princelings Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan were sent from Beijing to Yanan, in Shaanxi Province, where they spent years on farms. Tuanpai Li Keqiang and Li Yuanchao labored in some of the poorest rural areas in Anhui and Jiangsu provinces. Such arduous and humbling experiences forced these future leaders to cultivate certain traits, such as endurance, adaptability, foresightedness, and humility. They not only had the unusual opportunity to come to know rural China, but they also had to adjust to a completely different socioeconomic environment. This adjustment forced them to learn at an early age how to handle challenges and how to compromise. Xi Jinping recently told the Chinese media that his time in Yanan was a "defining experience," a "turning point" in his life.

If there is another event that approaches the importance of the Cultural Revolution in the lives of these men, it is undoubtedly the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. We don't have much information about how the incident affected them individually, but they are a generation older than many of the protesters, and at the time, several were municipal leaders or chiefs of the youth league. It is clear that they appreciate, as a group, that China's leadership during Tiananmen was deeply divided over how to respond to the unrest. They also realize that the internal struggle aggravated the crisis and ultimately culminated in a brutal response.

These events taught the fifth generation two lessons: First, they must maintain political stability at all costs, and second, they should not reveal their fissures to the public. Although these leaders wear their differences on their sleeves, there is solidarity at the highest level, inspired by past unrest, to avoid any sign of a split in the leadership, which would be dangerous for the party and for the country.

So, what do these profound differences and influential shared experiences tell China watchers about how the next generation will steer the Chinese economy? The economic prowess of the princelings will be essential to responding to the macroeconomic challenges the country will face this year and beyond. And the sensibilities of the tuanpai, versed as they are in organization and propaganda, will be invaluable as China responds to social problems born of -- and exacerbated by -- economic stagnation.

The rise of the team of rivals arrangement may result in fewer policies aimed at maximizing GDP growth rates at all costs. Instead, it might give way to policies that provide due consideration to both economic efficiency and social justice. Already, the ongoing global financial crisis has driven the leadership to change its emphasis from export-led growth to encouraging domestic demand, which means addressing rural needs. An ambitious land reform plan, which was adopted in the fall of 2008, promises to give farmers more rights and market incentives to encourage them to subcontract and transfer land. This strategy aims to increase the income of farmers, reduce economic disparity, promote sustainable urbanization, and ultimately end the century-long segregation between rural and urban China. Some analysts think that this land reform, along with a nearly $600 billion stimulus plan announced in November that favors railroad construction and rural infrastructure development, will greatly boost the country's domestic economy and hopefully propel China through the current economic crisis.

Although the land reforms largely reflect President Hu's agenda and the influence of the populists, leaders from the elitist camp have also been supporters of these policy initiatives. Political compromise and consensus-building, not zero-sum factional infighting, have shaped the rural development and stimulus plans.

But China's new game of elite politics may fail. What will happen, for instance, if economic conditions continue to worsen? Factionalism at the top might grow out of control, perhaps even leading to deadlock or outright feuding. Different outlooks over many issues -- including how to redistribute resources, establish a public healthcare system, reform the financial sector, achieve energy security, maintain political order, and handle domestic ethnic tensions -- are already so contentious that the leadership might find it increasingly difficult to build the kind of consensus necessary to govern effectively.

Barring something entirely unexpected, though, the populist policy platform will prevail over the next three to four years, and the ongoing global financial crisis will likely push Chinese leaders to increase government intervention in the economy. Yet there may be a swing in the opposite direction in 2012 as princeling Xi Jinping succeeds Hu Jintao, similar to the transition from Jiang to Hu. The establishment of such shifts during transitions at the top can create a healthy political dynamic that prevents one faction from wielding excessive power. Because of new leaders' differences in expertise, credentials, and experiences, contending coalitions will realize that they need to find ways to coexist in order to remain in power. They do, after all, have a common interest in social stability and the shared aspiration to further China's rise on the world stage. Given China's long history of arbitrary decision-making by one individual leader, this "one party, two coalitions" practice represents a major step forward -- for the party and the people.


Inside the Ivory Tower

Our third exclusive survey of international relations professors reveals they're worried about climate change, Russia's rise, and their own irrelevance. Plus: A ranking of the top schools for studying international relations.

The walls surrounding the ivory tower have never seemed so high. U.S. President Barack Obama has picked the team of people who will craft his foreign policy, and guess who didn't make the A list? Only most of the experts tasked with explaining the way the world works. Unfortunately, professors of international relations and political science are often the last people a president turns to for advice on running the world. At least, that's what the professors say.

Every two years, we survey international relations faculty from every four-year college and university in the United States, as identified by U.S. News & World Report. The 2008 results include the responses of 1,743 scholars collected between August and November of last year. Now, we're revealing the role professors think they play in policymaking today, and, more often, the frustrating lack of influence they think they have from their perch above the fray of international politics. Most revealing? Nearly 40 percent of respondents reported that these scholars have "no impact" on foreign policy or even the public discourse about it. Indeed, the only academics judged less effectual in the policy realm were historians.

What is to blame for IR scholars' exile from the political process? In recent years, professors have become increasingly skeptical about the utility of much of their own research to policymakers. In 2006, 48 percent of respondents reported that contemporary case studies conducted by academics were "very useful" to policymakers, but by 2008 only 39 percent of respondents thought policymakers would find this work useful.

Despite their perceived lack of influence, respondents in this year's survey firmly believe that academic experts can and should play an important role in policymaking. It's a conclusion that begs a provocative question: What would U.S. foreign policy look like if there were no wall between the ivory tower and the White House?

If the Obama administration took as its blueprint the poll of views of international relations scholars on issues ranging from the economy to Iran, the results would be at once expected and surprising. It's a largely liberal internationalist agenda, one that names the most important foreign-policy priorities facing the United States as: global climate change (37 percent), the war in Iraq (35 percent), global reliance on oil (34 percent), armed conflict in the Middle East (32 percent), and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (27 percent). A large majority of the experts favor increases in foreign aid (85 percent), free trade agreements (70 percent), and increased spending on the global aids epidemic (59 percent). Although these scholars oppose using military force against Iran even as it allegedly pursues a nuclear weapons program, a clear majority favors humanitarian intervention in Sudan if conducted under the aegis of an international institution such as NATO or the United Nations. (It's worth noting that had the survey been sent in December, after the global economic collapse, financial issues likely would have secured a higher spot.)

President Obama clearly shares the experts' concerns. On global warming, he has appointed a climate czar; on oil, he favors strengthening fuel-economy standards; and on the Iraq war, he is sticking to his plan to withdraw U.S. troops. Having one of their "own" in the White House -- a law professor with a liberal, like-minded agenda on the policymaking table -- may already have scholars feeling more included.

Public Enemy No. 1

Political pundits and journalists may buzz reflexively over the latest economic stimulus package or saber-rattling by Iran. But scholars of international relations take a longer view, scanning the horizon for power shifts that could affect the global pecking order.

So, which countries pose the greatest threat to the U.S. position today? Forty-three percent of respondents agreed that China's growing military power could threaten international stability. In fact, specialists predict that the strategic importance of East Asia generally will continue to grow. Although only 30 percent see the region as the one of greatest concern for the United States today (up from 19 percent in 2006), 68 percent reported it would be the region of greatest strategic importance in 20 years.

What of the Middle East? Scholars seem to anticipate a dramatic easing of tensions in the region during the next two decades. Although 46 percent currently judge it the most vital region for the United States, only 11 percent say it will be the most strategically important in 20 years.

Relatively close on the heels of the threat from East Asia seems to be the troubling potential for a Russian resurgence. When asked which country they would least like to see displace the United States as hegemon, 60 percent said Russia. (Just 51 percent named China.) Sometimes, the oldest patterns are the hardest to break.

Climate Change

What issue could possibly trump a major recession and not one but two foreign wars? Our warming planet. According to the scholars in this year's survey, a U.S. commitment to take the lead on international climate treaties is long overdue. Although the election of President Obama -- who has described the global climate change threat as "a matter of urgency" -- promises movement on U.S. environmental policy, it might not be nearly high enough on Obama's to-do list for these experts. Not only do academics consider the environment to be the greatest threat we face today, they predict it will be an even more important foreign-policy challenge for the United States in 10 years.

There remains, however, a disconnect between these findings and the type of research that scholars are conducting at leading educational institutions in the United States. The dialogue in scholarly journals often gives the impression that the United States is still fighting the Cold War -- that threats to national security come largely from great powers and from states that have or seek nuclear weapons. Although 40 percent of the scholars who responded claim their primary or secondary research focus is on international security issues, only 7 percent of respondents focused on international environmental issues.

If They Had a Billion Dollars

What if President Obama allotted IR scholars a $1 billion budget to spend as they saw fit over the course of the next fiscal year?

Although 85 percent of academics report that the U.S. foreign-aid budget should expand overall, scholars also agree about where not to spend the money -- the military. Sixty-four percent of experts say that U.S. spending on defense should decline. Instead, when security and economic issues are taken off the table and scholars are given a three-way choice among foreign aid, global AIDS spending, and climate change, the majority of these academics would spend any windfall on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Who's at the Top of the Class?

Dramatic changes in the ranking of leading IR programs are rare. This year's findings provide no exception; the perennial powers stay on top.

For the top two seats in all three categories -- Ph.D., master's, and undergraduate programs -- Harvard and Princeton, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins, and Harvard and Princeton, respectively, maintained their slots. But that's not to say nothing changed: Stanford unseated Columbia's doctoral program and climbed to the No. 3 slot. In the undergraduate ranking, Yale took the No. 3 spot from Stanford.

With four of the top master's programs located within or just outside the U.S. capital, the hot spot to pursue the policy track remains inside the Washington Beltway. Those more interested in purely academic pursuits will want to tread the coastlines; the northeast corridor is home to five of the top 10 Ph.D. programs, and California has three of its own in the top 10.

The 2008 survey also asked scholars to identify the top Ph.D. programs in the world for studying international relations. When forced to think beyond the American academy, respondents produced a British invasion. For the first time, three schools from Britain made the list of top programs for students wanting to pursue an academic career in IR: the London School of Economics (12), Oxford University (13), and Cambridge University (20). Competitive eyes should keep a steady watch -- there may be more movement still to come from across the pond.

The Five International Relations Professors Named the Most Influential Answer:

What is the most dangerous and overlooked threat Obama neglects to his peril?

"The most dangerous, but relatively neglected security threat would be the 'dark side' implications of the rapid development and worldwide diffusion of biotechnology."

-- James Fearon, Stanford University

"There is the very real possibility that Mexico will implode on Obama's watch and become a failed state, which would surely cause serious problems north of the Rio Grande."

-- John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago

"The most dangerous overlooked threat that we neglect at our peril? Ourselves. The imperative must be not only that 'they' recognize 'us,' but that 'we' recognize 'them,' too."

-- Alexander Wendt, Ohio State University

"In the 1930s, economic crisis led to Nazism in Germany and militarism in Japan. We must not overlook the threat that global economic crisis could again have malign effects on world politics."

-- Robert Keohane, Princeton University

"Throughout history overwhelmingly strong states have abused their power. Getting the defense budget under control is President Obama's greatest, and I fear his least understood, challenge."

-- Kenneth N. Waltz, Columbia University