China has completed its official, once-a-decade political leadership transition, and Xi Jinping has taken his place as both the new general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the country’s new president. His government comprises a new generation of leaders with different aptitudes, goals, and priorities for China’s future.

In this Q&A, Zhao Kejin explains the key differences between Xi’s government and previous generations of leadership and explores the changes the new regime might make to China’s domestic and foreign policy agendas.

How will the new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping be different from the previous one under Hu Jintao?

The Eighteenth Politburo Standing Committee of the CPC, under Xi, is different from previous generations of leaders in three aspects. First, they are more competent in government administration. The members of the Seventeenth Politburo served mainly in central government departments prior to being appointed by the Central Committee. Most of the new Politburo members, by contrast, gained experience by serving at the local level throughout China. This means that they better understand the economic, political, and cultural status quo in China and can focus on practical solutions. Xi’s preference for action instead of mere talk was evident during his visit to the city of Shenzhen, where he emphasized the phrase “empty talks jeopardize the nation” (空谈误国实干兴邦, kongtan wuguo shi ganxing bang).

Zhao Kejin
Zhao Kejin is an expert on China’s foreign policy and diplomacy. At Carnegie China, he runs a program that examines the development of China’s public diplomacy.
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Another difference between the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Politburos is the leaders’ educational backgrounds. Previous leaders primarily had backgrounds in science and engineering. However, only three members of the current Politburo have degrees in something other than the humanities or social sciences. Their backgrounds in economics, law, journalism, and public administration will usher in a different type of decisionmaking and rationale.

The first generation of leaders under Mao prioritized “revolutionary campaigns,” and the second and third generations expended effort to build up China’s political and economic structures. The new leadership will focus on improving the political system through institutional reform, social relationships, and personnel management.

The third difference is a stronger orientation toward reform. This was also highlighted during Xi’s trip to Shenzhen, which was his first tour after becoming general secretary of the CPC. His choice to visit Shenzhen first echoed Deng Xiaoping’s notable 1992 “South China Tour,” during which he visited Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, and Shanghai. During this tour, Deng stressed the importance of reform and opening up the Chinese economy. He articulated a special relationship between China’s socialism and the market economy. Deng’s tour signified a new era of reform, and Xi was trying to send a similar message by visiting Shenzhen first.

The new Chinese leadership has also demonstrated its pursuit of political reform by fostering a liberal public image. In December 2012, Xi called upon Politburo members to follow “eight requirements” (中央八项规定 Zhong Yang Ba Xiang Gui Ding) that emphasized frugality and compliance with new regulations. Such rhetoric demonstrates the reformist attitude of the new leadership.

What domestic reforms will the new leadership enact?

Domestic affairs will be the Chinese leadership’s top priority for the next five to ten years. Both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have promoted the new idea of the “Chinese dream” and the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (中华民族伟大复兴, zhonghua minzu weida fuxing). Xi described China’s turbulent modern history and emphasized that domestic economic growth was the path to Chinese rejuvenation in his November 2012 keynote address at the National Museum of China.

The Chinese leadership needs to take on the various domestic challenges that are barriers to China’s rise to power. The first task will be political reform. The CPC needs to implement anticorruption measures, tweak the responsibilities of various ministries and ministers, and improve the government’s efficiency.

The second task is economic reform. The Chinese economic structure is currently flawed and marked by an unbalanced distribution of resources among different regions and industries. This leaves the Chinese economy vulnerable, and it needs to be reformed according to a more rational outlook toward the country’s development. Issues like medical care, housing, and transportation problems are extremely complicated and potentially destabilizing, so the new leadership should at least start to figure out ways to address them.

Given these priorities, any decisions made by the new leadership on foreign policy should be based on whether these choices will improve the CPC’s governance and economic development within China.

Will there be any changes to China’s overall foreign policy strategy?

The Eighteenth National Party Congress report described China’s development as still in an “important period of strategic opportunities.” These opportunities were first outlined by the sixteenth National Party Congress, which emphasized how globalization, scientific developments, a multipolar world, domestic reform, and opening up the economy were essential to China’s development.

The next step for China is to shift toward being more proactive in the foreign policy realm and move away from its previous stance of maintaining a low profile. China’s overall foreign policy strategy will be more proactive, positive, and comprehensive. This means that the new leadership will actively respond to the dynamics of the external global community and be proactive in setting its foreign policy agenda.

China used to adopt a passive approach to foreign policy, learning from other countries but only voicing its opinion to the global community when crises like the financial meltdown or the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute captured the public’s attention. But from now on, China will be more proactive in stating its opinion and proposing its own ideas. Xi has already begun this process by describing his vision of the “new great-power relationship” during his February 2012 visit to the United States.

The National Party Congress’s report described China’s commitment to using its political and economic power to provide more aid to less developed countries. At the bilateral level, China will put more effort into creating win-win results. At the multilateral level, China will shoulder more responsibility in solving mutual problems like climate change, terrorism, and the economic crisis. China aims to facilitate solutions for a safer world and increased prosperity.

A comprehensive foreign policy strategy means that China will explore new channels to conduct diplomacy. The Eighteenth National Party Congress report marks China’s first mention of public diplomacy as part of its strategy. The country will also increasingly incorporate public opinion from different parts of the world into its strategy, which will result in a more sincere, open-minded, and friendly image of China and its leadership.

In addition, China will try to increase dialogue with domestic opposition parties, dissidents, and other nongovernmental organizations. The ultimate goal is to increase China’s domestic stability in order to allow its leaders to focus on creating effective foreign policy.

What does this “new great-power relationship” proposed by Xi mean?

Many in the press and academia have interpreted Xi’s proposal as an adjustment in China’s relationship with the United States. But more broadly, it describes China’s evolving relations with both established and emerging powers. China’s new relationship with established, developed world powers will be marked by three principles: multilateral cooperation and trust based on mutual interests and common responsibility; coordination and communication in resolving differences; and international law.

China’s new relationship with emerging, developing powers will follow the principle of mutual benefit and advocate putting aside divergent views. Chinese cooperation with these countries will focus on bringing economic growth to both parties, even if pursuing such mutual benefit requires China to table disagreements regarding another country’s political ideology.

What is the new Chinese leadership’s strategy for engaging with global institutions?

Global institutions have achieved unprecedented prominence in foreign policy circles. The new leadership’s strategy for Chinese engagement with these institutions will emphasize fairness. This will mark a shift from the previous leadership’s focus on the principle of equality.

Previously, China held that every country had to shoulder the same amount of responsibility in global governance. But the new leadership will advocate fairness in global institutions instead of quality. This means that less developed, poorer countries cannot be held the same level of responsibility as larger, richer countries and that larger powers should aid smaller powers.

China will have the opportunity to demonstrate its role as a more proactive global leader in this year’s major multilateral meetings of the G20 and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

How will the Chinese leadership adjust to political transitions in neighboring countries?

China’s policy toward its neighbors aims to foster peaceful development by promoting economic and security cooperation in the region. China has always had a positive attitude toward joint agreements with neighbors. However, the core focus of these relationships has been to deepen mutually beneficial cooperation.

As neighboring countries go through their own political transitions, China will surely encounter difficulties. But it will continue to strive for selective cooperation with these countries by fully recognizing each one’s rights, responsibilities, and capabilities. Previously, the makers of Chinese foreign policy adopted the same approach for building economic and political ties with all China’s neighbors. The goal was to “bring harmony, security, and prosperity,” as then premier Wen Jiabao announced at the 2003 ASEAN Business and Investment Summit.

The next generation of Chinese foreign policy will be more selective. China will deepen its economic and political ties with its strongest neighbors, which will allow it to incorporate more development assistance into these primary bilateral relationships.

China’s new leadership will also promote more teamwork in multilateral efforts, such as in climate change negotiations, UN resolutions, and cooperation between developing countries. However, China will remain firmly committed to the basic principle of noninterference in the domestic affairs of other countries.

This article was published as part of the Window into China series