Interview with Jerome Cohen on "Deciphering Beijing's Transition" with CFR

The Eighteenth Chinese Communist Party Congress opens on Thursday amid murky signals about the Chinese leadership transition, says CFR's Jerome A. Cohen. He says that of the top seven political leaders who make up the Standing Committee of the party, Xi Jinping, the designated next president, and Li Keqiang, the designated premier, are known, but "we don't really know what they stand for, what they're likely to do." Cohen says no matter who was elected U.S. president this week, it "isn't going to make much difference because every president, when the political rhetoric is over, has to come to grips with this rising, unknown difficult phenomenon" of China.

Two days after Americans voted to reelect Barack Obama as president, the Eighteenth Chinese Communist Party Congress will convene in Beijing, from which a new Chinese political leadership will emerge. What are your thoughts about this coincidence?

The processes by which the two governments select their leaders could not be more different. In Beijing, two days before the opening of the Congress that will select the seven top people, the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, very little is known. We know the identities of two of the seven: Xi Jinping, who next year is likely to be the next president of China, and Li Keqiang, who is slated to become premier. But we don't really know what they stand for, what they're likely to do, and we don't know how they've been selected.

What about the other five?

It's even murkier because it is not clear who they will be. There are still discussions going on, as far as we can tell. We don't know who the decision-makers are, who are the horse traders in deciding who's on and off the seven-person Standing Committee. Of course, all the contenders for the final five spots, even if they lose, will be on the broader twenty-five-member Politburo itself. But what do these people really stand for? Are they simply very intelligent, very cautious political bureaucrats who have risen through a variety of challenges, never really revealing what they think, always trying to pander to the policies of the higher-ups? And once they reach the inner circle, is there any way of knowing what they're going to do? Of course, in every government, it's hard to predict how a presidential candidate, for example, will behave as president.

Why don't you talk first a bit about the two who are definite, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang?

Xi Jinping is a so-called "princeling." His father, former vice premier Xi Zhongxun, was a famous leader. Although he could be said to have grown up initially with the Communist equivalent of a silver spoon, he spent a long time out in the boondocks trying to carve out his own reputation for doing things without parental assistance. He's an intelligent, balanced person, well-educated, highly experienced, and virtually unknown – and perhaps unknowable. Predictions for him include, "Once he gets confident in office, he's likely to be an intelligent law reformer and political institution reformer." Another view, and more likely to happen, is he's likely to be a disappointing bureaucrat, some say in the model of former Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev – someone who was not able to meet the challenges that a highly developing country is confronted by.

Li Keqiang is significant in one respect certainly. He is the first law graduate to assume a high office in the People's Republic. There's never been, as far as I know, any law school graduate in the Standing Committee in the Politburo. This man is highly intelligent. His classmates at Peking University Law School, where he graduated in 1982, give him high marks, although devoted to politics even at that time. Since then, he's shown little evidence of his legal training. He's shown no real proclivity for helping to reform a legal system that badly needs to be reformed. He has been highly political in some cases. People say he shows insensitivity to human rights. But again, all these people are enshrined in mystery and very, very cautious about saying anything publicly.

How much influence does President Hu Jintao maintain?

There is an ongoing negotiation among the leaders who have at least nominally retired, those who are about to retire, and those who are about to ascend to office. It's kind of a three-cornered struggle, or bargaining process, and it's all behind very, very closed doors where rumors emerge of a very uncertain nature. It's a preposterous way for the leaders of such an advanced and prominent country to be selected.

Even if one disregards the desirability of consulting the people of the country about who their governors are going to be, just from the point of view of an efficient way of arranging things, these people have not moved very far beyond the selection of the elite under the Manchu Dynasty. And when you get into murder plots involving one of the members of the Politburo, Bo Xilai, who was hoping to be among the seven members of the Standing Committee, and the poisoning of someone [Neil Heywood] said to be a foreign spy by Bo's wife, who feared exposure of their corruption, this is a little much.

Do we have any sense of how relations between the United States and China will be in the next several years?

The Chinese are confronted by a problem similar to ours. People worried, "What if Mitt Romney won? What will our China policy be, compared to if Obama won?" But experience over the last forty years suggests that it probably isn't going to make much difference because every president, when the political rhetoric is over, has to come to grips with this rising, unknown difficult phenomenon: China.

And the Chinese have a similar problem. They know they need the United States very, very much. They know they have interests that seem to clash rather sharply in some respects. And they know whoever takes over has to be cognizant of the complexity of the relationship and the desirability of not only sustaining it, but also improving it.

You have been very critical of China's human rights record. Can you speak to that?

The Chinese are faced with a broad range of challenges, not least of which is what to do about the rule of law. What is going to happen to a growing demand in the country for human rights, not just to close the gap, which is huge now, between rich and poor, but also to try to create institutions that will provide outlets for the very large number of grievances publicly expressed – often in violent forms – that seem to plague China? The leaders either have to continue to rely on repression, which seems to be their immediate weapon of choice, or they have to decide to give more vent to the increasing steam from below.

In the mid-1980s, in Taiwan, you had a Kuomintang Nationalist Party dictatorship that was confronted year after year by more and more demands for freedom, for democratic process, for liberal institutions. And they kept repressing them. Chiang Kai-shek's son, Chiang Ching-kuo, knowing he was quite ill and didn't have that much time to go, decided that they couldn't go on relying on repression. They had to start a process that would gradually open up the system and give greater participation to the rights-conscious people who were increasing every year in number. When I first went to Taiwan in 1961, he was in charge of the secret police. He was known to be a vicious repressor of all democratic instincts, especially those where people were trying to say they wanted to be independent of the Kuomintang mainland Chinese rule. And yet when he died in 1988, I found myself saying quite nice things about him, because in the years just before his death, he had initiated a process that has now – we can see a generation later – led to the first democratic rule of law society that the Chinese have ever really spawned. It is more democratic than Singapore and eons ahead of anything produced on the mainland.

Are any of the current leaders advocates of a more liberal policy?

You don't get to the top of this greasy pole by advocating liberal political reform, human rights, and rule of law. We never know until a person gets to the pinnacle how he's going to behave. Nobody knew in 1956 that Nikita S. Khrushchev was going to adopt a policy known as de-Stalinization. I had thought Khrushchev was another running dog of Stalin. Well he was, and he hated it. And when he got to power three years after Stalin's death, he initiated an opening process. It didn't go as far as many liberal reformers wanted, but it was a surprise to people, including the Chinese who were present at the Twentieth Party Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. Nobody knew that Mikhail Gorbachev, despite the fact that he was known to be a law school graduate, was going to engage in perestroika. He may not have known it himself.

The New York Times scrutinizes this fellow Wang Yang, the Communist Party secretary of Guangdong province, right next to Hong Kong. Wang Yang, from time to time, has sounded like he might be the next generation's liberal reformer among the party elite. Until about a year ago, he made considerable noises to support that idea and occasionally engaged in some enlightened policies. In the last year or so, though, he's been rather quiet, especially since the fall of Bo Xilai, who was often seen to be his opposite number and rival. He has been trying to behave himself so he would look just as staid and boring as the other candidates – innocuous, reliable, a team player, a consensus builder; not somebody who is colorfully going to stick his neck out and try to engage in democratic experimentation.

For the full interview published on the Council on Foreign Relations' website, "Deciphering Beijing’s Transition," please follow this link.  

Interview with Jerome Cohen on Bo Xilai's Trial in CFR

This article appeared on Council on Foreign Relations' website on August 27, 2013. 


China’s Rule-of-Law Trial

Interviewee: Jerome A. Cohen, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, Council on Foreign Relations


The just-concluded trial of former Communist Party boss Bo Xilai was unprecedented in opening up a high-profile legal proceeding to public scrutiny, says legal scholar Jerome A. Cohen. The case also reveals the conflicts among the country's leaders as they grapple with everything from corruption to an economic slowdown. "They're not repudiating a so-called Western legal system even though they say they can't adopt it all," Cohen says. "The fact is they can't escape its influence and this trial shows it." The platform of President Xi Jinping, he says, "is very mixed up. You have a very confused leadership."

Fallen Chinese politician Bo Xilai stands trial inside the court in Jinan, Shandong province (Jinan Intermediate People's Court/Courtesy Reuters).

The case against a leading Chinese official, Bo Xilai, has ended. The verdict will come out eventually, but what's the significance of this highly publicized trial?

It has a great significance from several points of view but the most important to me is its significance for justice in China. China is increasingly seething with a sense of injustice. As China has made economic, social, educational, and legal progress in the past three decades, more and more people have come to demand fairness. They want a right to be heard, they want a judiciary that demands integrity, they want to feel they can have somewhere to go to settle their disputes in a way that can inspire confidence, and this trial really showed them something. In the normal trial in China, you don't have witnesses come to court, you have no right to face your accusers, you have no right to cross-examine them. The trial of Bo Xilai showed what it means when that occurs.


Give an example.

"Leaders of the party have recognized that the fight against corruption for them is a life or death fight."

In the case of Bo Xilai's wife [Gu Kailai], who testified against himshe did not turn up in court. The prosecutor merely read aloud in court testimony she had given out of court before the trial. There was no defendant, no defense counsel to ask questions and bring out a fuller picture of what she was saying or rebut it. It was obviously so unfair that overnight, party officials saw that this was not effective so the next day they produced an eleven minute video of part of her previous day's written testimony. It showed her being interrogated by a friendly questioner; again, no opportunity for anyone to interrupt her, to qualify what she said, to ask a question, to rebut, but at least it did one thing: it humanized her testimony and it gave the Chinese people a chance to examine what we in the law call "demeanor evidence."

The leaders of the state recognize the desirability and the importance if a trial is going to have integrity and credibility to have your accusers confront you in court, and they produced several of the other major witnesses. Bo Xilai fascinated people because he took the initiative away from even his own competent defense lawyer and he asked questions of witnesses and ridiculed some of them.


You've been following Bo Xilai for quite a while. Did you think he had great potential?

Despite the fact that since 2007 he had been spouting Maoism, people who knew him before 2007 all said he's no Maoist. The Maoism was a gambit to get to power, but I always felt that once in power, because of his openness to the world and his intelligence, he would see that China has got to be brought into the twenty-first century, gain the respect of other powers, and improve the economy by improving the legal system, reducing corruption, and gradually having a freer society. He was smart enough to see that, but he never got there because he took an extreme path to power and because people didn't like him. All these other guys are team players. This guy is not, and of course since [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev, the Chinese leaders have learned to fear individualists.


How do you think he did in the trial?

He put on a pretty impressive show. It wasn't good enough to persuasively rebut the accusations against him, but it did give people, even his own supporters, a feeling that he hadn't been denied a right to speak and to defend himself, and that's unique in Chinese Communist political trials. Bo Xilai has had an opportunity to express himself, in public, in a court, [in] a limited way because his testimony wasn't open to a public audience, but it was open in a sense, because the government provided a censored transcript of what he said.

This is a tremendous thing for justice; it's going to stimulate further the rising demand in China for a fair legal system. Getting back to a theme I know you're interested in, where do the ideas come from for a fair legal system? Are these Western ideas? Are these universal ideas? This is worth talking about.


Is this the platform of President Xi Jinping?

No. Xi's platform is very mixed up. You have a very confused leadership and the same people within the leadership speak with conflicting voices. The major irony in the Bo Xilai case is what alienated him from the rest of the leadership is his resort to a Maoist, Cultural Revolution–style politics that was designed to propel him into the highest ranks of the leadership. They've knocked him down, but at the same time that they're trying him for various crimes, their whole ideological line at this time is very similar to his. They're not knocking Chairman Mao; they are still espousing a leftist, Communist doctrine. Indeed, they are trying to revive it. At the same time, they're not repudiating a so-called Western legal system even though they say they can't adopt it all. They can't escape its influence and this trial shows it. It's very complicated.


They are arresting a number of high officials on corruption charges, right?

Yes. China is now suffering very badly from corruption. Corruption was what did in theChiang Kai -shek predecessor regime in the 1940s. The contemporary leaders of the party have recognized that the fight against corruption for them is a life or death fight, but once again, they are caught. On the one hand they purport to condemn and punish corruption, and they do it to a limited extent; on the other hand, the real situation prevents them from doing it in a persuasive, effective way, because if they did that they would bring down the regime.


What is their view about liberalizing the media?

More and more in the last eight to ten months the press has been under a great repression. They do not believe in the free press, and more and more they're showing it. Instructions that come out every day tell the press what to publish, what not to publish, how to publish, what the headlines should be, on what page the news should appear, what sources can be quoted and what can't. They do not believe in free expression, although the press, naively after the first day of Bo Xilai's trial, said, "Look at this wonderful transparency! For the first time they are issuing transcripts for a trial hearing!" The reason for it wasn't a desire to free the press; if they wanted to free the press, they would have let them attend the trial. The reason for issuing transcripts is they wanted to control the transcript so they could continue to be in control of information.


But why did they even bother?

Because they are under enormous domestic and international pressure to meet certain standards, and where do those standards come from? Are these foisted from the evil capitalist conspirators abroad who are trying to bring down the regime? Are these natural human desires to know what's going on in your own government? Where did they come from? Rising discontent in China, which has a huge increasing number of public, sometimes violent, protests everyday?


Is the economy doing well enough that they can relax? Or are they worried about the economy?

They have done remarkable things since 1978 and of course the world thinks the economy of China can't be stopped and is going to continue this way and is invulnerable, but the Chinese leaders know better. The economy seems to have peaked. Its many unsolved problems seem to be coming home to roost and we don't know how serious it's going to be. So far the leaders have shown considerable ability to be resilient and be fast on their feet and put out every fire as it develops, but they've had to do so by ways that have proved to be costly in the long run and they know they can't continue forever. This move from an export economy to a domestic consumption economy is proving very difficult because the vast state-owned enterprise interests and the families—thousands of rich families—do not want to change the system that has been so wildly successful for them.