[now on the SCMP website]
It surprised me to see two China specialists argue that reducing the number of Politburo Standing Committee seats is “regressive” and a “step backwards” (“Small circle”, October 8). The authors then advocate increasing the number of seats without analysing how this would affect decision-making.
One-party authoritarian states face unique governance challenges, the biggest being susceptibility to dictators. The standing committee was empowered after the Cultural Revolution to make sure another Mao Zedong never rose to power. A nine-member executive team rules the country because having one executive in a non-competitive system makes dictatorship too likely. But this replaces one problem with another.
I advocate diversity in decision-making, but one can see how a multi-headed executive council might run into trouble if one imagines a country run by two or more prime ministers. Institutions with rules that give overly powerful, executive voices to multiple members are inherently flawed, and adding members does not make them more effective.
The conventional wisdom is that standing committee members have something approximating a veto because decisions are made under the rules of consensus, meaning any member can stop any policy simply by not agreeing. If that weren’t enough, it seems individual members often have their own policies.
We’re seeing increasingly fragmented responses coming out of Beijing: naval flotillas being sent to disputed waters and never arriving, deals being made over Chen Guangcheng by one ministry but ignored by another, and what the authors consider the perplexing public destruction of Bo Xilai’s reputation (which was probably necessary to get around the opposition of a standing committee member).
I would also advocate bringing more stakeholders to the standing committee if the rules of consensus gave way to something more parliamentary. But that’s unlikely, and the consensus rules lend themselves to further policy malaise if the number of vetoes and independent actors aren’t reduced.
China, like other countries, needs to be able to act swiftly and decisively in a fast-changing world. Other countries need to know that the people they’re negotiating with have the power to act on formal and informal agreements. Professor John Mearsheimer, an international relations scholar, argues that the biggest threat of a US-China armed conflict lies in the risk of miscommunicating intentions. That risk is already significant and would be even greater with more standing committee member seats.