Even China's Communist Party Needs Political Transparency

Small group of business people meeting in China.
Small group of business people meeting in China.

In America, a momentous transfer of power is less than four months away. No one knows who will be elected president or which party will control which house of Congress.

Yet despite the public's oft-expressed disgust with the candidates, there is nothing secret about the process. Americans have been able to watch as every state chose delegates to select a presidential contender.

China offers a sharp contrast.

An important transfer of power impends there too. A larger than usual number of Chinese Communist Party leaders will retire next year. Assuming mandatory retirement ages do not change, 85 of 205 Central Committee members, 11 of 25 Politburo members, and 5 of 7 Politburo Standing Committee members will ride off into the sunset.

Other selections also will be made. The biggest prize of all is the presumed reelection of President Xi Jinping.

These contests are as momentous as those in America, but the process in the People's Republic of China is utterly opaque. Presumably President Xi is pushing officials loyal to him; almost as certainly former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin are working to constrain their successor.

August is when the leadership elite traditionally leaves the Beijing heat for the nearby seaside resort of Beidaihe to continue its deliberations in more pleasant circumstances. Now, back at Beijing's Zhongnanhai compound, much difficult bargaining undoubtedly remains. Why any particular figure advances or falls remains almost impossible to determine.

It's a bad system for the PRC and the rest of the world.

Set aside issues of democracy and human rights. China has the world's second largest economy. Beijing now ranks second on the planet for military spending. The PRC has growing financial and political impact around the globe. What happens in China matters everywhere.

Thus, stability and predictability are important virtues. Of course, open political systems often yield unexpected results. Most members of Europe's commercial and political elite didn't believe Brexit would happen. Donald Trump won the Republican Party presidential nomination against the expectations of most pundits.

Nevertheless, in both cases the possibilities always were there. Polls placed Brexit within striking distance of victory. The likelihood of a Trump victory steadily increased as primaries occurred.

The respective publics also knew how to influence the political process. No one individual could change the result, but people generally were invested in the elections and perceived the opportunity to hold an unpopular political leadership accountable. In fact, that desire helps account for the unexpected electoral outcomes.

No such possibility exists in China. And that's dangerous for the PRC's future, particularly the nation's stability.

The Chinese people are growing more sophisticated. They are better educated and have more contact with the outside world. An increasing number travel overseas. People are less likely to accept injustice at the hands of local authorities; some even make the lengthy trek to Beijing to demand justice.

Although the Xi government's broad crackdown against political dissent and human rights activism may temporarily strengthen the CCP's hold on power, repression is unlikely to long suppress popular aspirations for greater participation in the political process and increased accountability for political leaders. The surest route for future conflict and instability would be for the party to attempt to preserve politics as a process that combines mystery, enigma, and paradox, beyond understanding let alone control of an increasingly dissatisfied people being governed.

Such a system also frustrates outsiders interested in investing in or dealing with the PRC. Investment and trade have become more difficult. Multinational companies have been targeted for unclear reasons and absent recourse. Diplomats point to provinces where officials simply refuse to make decisions, lest they find themselves targeted by Beijing for having the wrong political loyalties. Fear of prosecution also slowed the wheels of government and commerce by ending the corruption that traditionally lubricated the political process.

The lack of clarity and predictability also afflicts international relations. Much is at risk in Asia. North Korea is under sanction, yet continues to spew threats at one and all. Earlier this year Taiwan's people voted in an independence direction, increasing tensions with Beijing. The recent international territorial ruling placed greater pressure on the PRC, which must yield or, much more likely, even more aggressively assert its claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

How will Beijing's upcoming leadership transition affect these issues? No one knows. At least foreign leaders are aware of the critical differences between, say, Clinton and Trump, even if their exact policies might evolve once in office. Moreover, the visibility of the U.S. contest showcases the larger political forces at work, which helps observers adapt to the outcome.

Of course, no nation has an obligation to create a political system to satisfy foreigners. But here the interests of the Chinese coincide with those of outsiders. And if the residents of Zhongnanhai aspire to global leadership, they are likely to find a warmer welcome if the rest of the world has a better sense as to who it is deciding and by what process they are doing so.

The operation of government seems to inevitably frustrate, irrespective of country. But politics is not always mysterious. Even dominant one-party states, ranging from Singapore (continuing) to Taiwan and Mexico (for decades), were more open and accessible than is China. Such an approach better accommodated people as they grew wealthier and more sophisticated, and became more assertive politically.

Of course, the ongoing Chinese leadership change will be orchestrated under the old rules. Which means no one outside of a chosen few will know what is going on. But the new set of leaders should think beyond the present.

China is a great nation with extraordinary potential. But it faces equally significant challenges. It will fare better in the future with a more transparent political system. Ultimately the PRC's leaders will find it ever harder to hide the most important decisions from public view.