Behind the masks of China’s senior cadres

When the seven ageing men in matching dark suits strode out from behind the red curtain on November 15 2012, the assembled members of the world media in the Great Hall of the People were rewarded with the only moment of real drama in the Chinese political process.

I had arrived a little late and was standing on a chair near the back as President Xi Jinping gave a short speech in front of the other members of the standing committee of the politburo of the Communist party of China.

Every last detail was carefully scripted, even the tie each man wore – Wang Qishan, the newly appointed head of anti-corruption, was given a blue one while his six comrades all wore slightly different shades of red.

Looking at the stiff, robotic unelected men who would run China for the next five years I could not help thinking of the enormous competing networks of interests, businesses and patrons who had ensured their candidates made it to the top of the world’s biggest political party.

As Kerry Brown, a professor at the University of Sydney and an associate fellow at Chatham House in London, points out in The New Emperors, China is run by an increasingly hereditary ruling class. Even the best- informed insiders, including people actually involved in the process, have no clear idea how the country’s most senior leaders are actually chosen.

At least four of the seven standing committee members are considered “princelings”, the children or close relatives of former senior leaders in the Communist party firmament.

Building on earlier books in which he has provided a more human picture of China’s leaders, Brown provides good anecdotes and assessments from multiple sources to say as much as he can about the personas behind the stiff dark suits. Those who have not spent a significant amount of time trying to peel back the carefully drawn masks of the leadership cannot appreciate just how hard this is. It is not just the inner workings of the party that are guarded by layer upon layer of secrecy. The very existence of a senior cadre’s family members is treated as a “state secret” and the appearance in public of the wives of Mr Xi and Premier Li Keqiang is trumpeted as a sign of openness by state propaganda.

Brown does not provide any bombshell revelations but he does give us very useful summaries and insights into the lives and motivations of the senior leadership. There are helpful explanations and background throughout about some of the events that have shaped modern China and the people who rule it.

He correctly identifies the devastating cultural revolution of 1966-76 as one of the most powerful influences on Mr Xi and his contemporaries, many of whom were persecuted, their lives and families torn apart.

As Brown points out, China is a country with a population of 1.36bn that is run by just over 2,500 people – fewer than the population of most villages in Europe. Not all of these high-ranking cadres are princelings, and this book does a good job of explaining some of the other factors that can help someone reach the top. Perhaps the most important is patronage from senior leaders to whom you are not related.

Brown provides some useful insights into the five members who, along with Mr Xi and Mr Li, make up the standing committee. They include Yu Zhengsheng, who appears to have been elevated because of his ties to the family of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. “The [Communist party] is like a partly family-run business,” and Yu represents the interests of the Deng family “almost like a board member represents key shareholders in a family business that has gone public”, writes Brown.

This, along with and the support of Jiang Zemin, another former president, were enough to erase the stain on Mr Yu’s career caused by the defection of his brother to the US in 1985. The former senior state security official had caused enormous damage to China’s spy networks before he was assassinated in the 1990s.

The book also gives us a peep into what life is like once a leader reaches the political heights. This is the hardest thing to do when talking about the Chinese system but it is by far the most interesting part, and The New Emperors would have been even better with more material of this kind.

For those following China very closely there is not much here that is new or revelatory – and at points there are passing references to events or historical context that might confuse a less knowledgeable reader.

But overall Brown provides a great introduction to the world of current elite Chinese politics and the men – they are all men – who inhabit its upper reaches.

The writer is the FT’s Beijing bureau chief

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