Runs Like a Camel

If a camel is a horse built by committee, why is China a thoroughbred? The world's fastest-growing economy is also the only one governed by a committee, specifically the Communist Party's nine-member Politburo standing committee. Of course the party's constant talk of "collective leadership" may sound like lip service to a lost communal ideal. But the current evidence suggests that--precisely because current party boss and President Hu Jintao is less decisively "paramount" than many of his predecessors--he is now as or more deeply beholden to committee thinking than any Chinese leader in recent memory. So why doesn't China look like a camel, slow-footed and a bit confused?

The answer is to look again. Collective leadership "works" in the sense that China's bosses have steered the economic boom, kept a lid on domestic unrest and pursued a much more high-profile diplomacy, all with little overt sign of factional warfare. Consensus is indeed necessary and, barring that, then the appearance of consensus is equally important. In a rare leak from inside the Politburo, reports on the July meeting tell of an argument over a, so far, successful campaign of cutbacks by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to slow the overheating economy. Confronted by the Shanghai party secretary with a litany of ways the cutbacks were hurting his region, Wen fought back, but eventually agreed to take "personal" blame in the event of an economic crash. In the end, Hu reminded everyone present that the curbs were a "collective decision" that all were obliged to follow.

In other words, today's Politburo doesn't work all that differently from a Western cabinet: ministers collide behind closed doors, the leader makes the final call and tries to present a united front. Ministers associated with failed policies lose their jobs. The difference in China is that there is more talk, fewer leaks--and, if recent history is any gauge, losers could land under house arrest. The days when no lesser Politburo member dared challenge any position taken by a strongman like Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping are over. "Nobody can do it like that anymore," said a Beijing-based Western diplomat. "Now they make decisions by consensus. They discuss and discuss and discuss."

Still, the results are more a credit to the winning ministers than the wisdom of the committee. China may look bold and decisive in breaking a runaway economy, but consider its recent flip-flops over how to define China's role in the world. In April 2004, after much debate, senior leaders such as Wen began using the phrase "peaceful rise" as a way to candidly acknowledge China's new clout so as to emphasize benign motives. But doves worried that the word "rise" would scare people. Hawks, perhaps including Hu's predecessor Jiang Zemin (who at the time was still head of the powerful Central Military Commission), worried that the word "peaceful" would appear to rule out the use of force. By June, after much more discussion, the entirely innocuous phrase abruptly disappeared from official discourse.

That doesn't mean the idea is dead. Since Jiang officially retired from the military commission in September, intellectuals are discussing it again. But Hu and Wen are not expected to support its revival, in part because "they have less guts than Mao or Deng or even Jiang," as one Chinese analyst put it. They want no part of a policy that might appear to associate China even remotely with the postwar "rise" of Germany, Japan and the United States as global powers. And a series of recent external setbacks, from tension in the Taiwan Strait to rising energy prices, has pushed Beijing back toward a more cautious posture. So "peaceful rise" has given way to a new catchprase: "peaceful development." Chen Pochih, of the Taiwan Thinktank in Taipei, says Beijing is rediscovering a classic Deng Xiaoping directive on foreign policy, which translates loosely as "before China becomes strong it has to disguise its intentions and pretend to be weak." A Western diplomat in Beijing says the whole tangled debate "has all the hallmarks of leadership by committee, Chinese style." And none of the traits of a thoroughbred.