When this transition is complete, the United States will confront a sea of new faces in China. These new leaders will steer the country through some of its biggest challenges, which could include major political reform. The next 10 to 15 years will be a turbulent period in China, and these new leaders will determine how that turbulence will evolve and how it will impact U.S.-China relations. This issue brief looks at the reasons why this political transition matters so much to our nation, the challenges and divides the new party leadership will have to navigate, and what U.S. policymakers should do as these new leaders react to the rough waters ahead.
Within the party, there is an increasingly visible left/right ideological divide over how to handle these new challenges. On the left the pro-egalitarianism, pro-Mao cadres support a strengthening of China’s socialist roots. On the right the pro-reform cadres support more opening up through administrative transparency, political diversity, and public participation.
Overall, China is becoming increasingly diverse, and we must be aware of these growing divides. U.S. policymakers must develop a better understanding of where individual Chinese leaders, agencies, and regions stand on critical bilateral issues. Approaching China without that understanding would be like approaching the United States without knowing the U.S. Democrat/Republican party divides—it could easily lead to major foreign policy miscalculations.
Just like in the United States, different Chinese leaders may send different signals, and that will make it difficult for the United States to correctly predict which way the country will go unless we also understand what those differences mean inside China. When the United States applies political pressure—on trade, human rights, or any other bilateral issue—we must fully understand China’s divides and, when possible, calibrate U.S. foreign policy to push internal debates in our favor.
China’s Forthcoming Political Transition