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Tucker: In China, new boss Xi Jinping is same as the old boss

China's new Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping

China's new Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping is seen on a screen speaking in Beijing's Great Hall of the People. Xi is highlighting corruption, though he has yet to offer any specific new proposals to stop it. (Nov. 15, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

Xi Jinping formally became China's new leader last week, after months of secretive bargaining.

It is difficult for Americans to understand what leadership change in China means. If you anticipate finding hidden reformers who can be encouraged to transform China, you are very American -- but not very attuned to China. Social connections and patronage networks determined who emerged to take the helm, not new ideas.

Americans -- ordinary citizens and pundits, even some scholars and officials -- greet every new generation of China's leaders with the conviction that somewhere there is a democratically inclined, free enterprise advocate biding his time. Those were the hopes that greeted Hu Jintao's ascendance a decade ago, just as they greet the new fifth generation of Xi Jinping, the Communist Party of China general secretary, and the incoming prime minister, Li Keqiang. In the case of Hu Jintao, not only did innovation never materialize, but repression, not enhanced freedom, characterized his rule.

A more realistic appraisal of China's leaders reveals a group of conservative and cautious men highly unlikely to take bold steps toward structural reform. Their priority is to keep themselves in power. Accordingly, they will have to address China's mounting crises: rampant corruption, environmental degradation, social and financial inequality, sclerotic state-owned enterprises, rigid educational norms, an aging population, the gender disequilibrium that has resulted from the one-child policy, frayed health care, unreliable infrastructure and weak consumer demand.

Although they must respond, watch for hesitant and halting solutions that change the margins and not the center of China's economy, politics or society. These new leaders will have to spend as much time bargaining with each other -- and looking over their shoulders at restive nationalists and discontented citizens -- as originating fresh policies.

What all this means for the United States will remain unclear for months. China's new leaders will have to learn how to work together, set goals, determine priorities and resolve differences. Moreover, the new leadership won't be more transparent than the old, continuing China's opacity on critical issues like military modernization.

But certain conclusions can be drawn even now. China's America policy is not likely to change radically. China needs access to U.S. markets and to American technology. It benefits, if uncomfortably, from U.S. naval patrols of sea lanes and trade. It wants to cooperate on transnational problems such as smuggling and piracy.

None of which means that China will become less nationalist, less assertive or less belligerent in areas like the East and South China seas. Sovereignty claims and territorial issues will remain key and controversial.

China will not end its support of governments like Iran's or stop blocking international action in crises like that in Syria. In fact, competition for natural resources will mean China continues to work with regimes that Washington denounces as rogues and pariahs. China will not become a comprehensive stakeholder in the international community, but rather continue to undertake international responsibilities piecemeal, when convenient or unavoidable. There will not be any sudden relaxation of trade barriers or respect for intellectual property rights.

Many Chinese will remain anti-American, and human rights abuses are certain to continue.

Under such conditions it will be difficult to build mutual trust, avoid misunderstanding, miscalculation and miscommunication. New leadership notwithstanding, the U.S.-China relationship will remain uneasy, complicated and unpredictable. Americans need to abandon their hopes for hidden reformers and jettison the idea of an emergent, reform-oriented superhero and get on with the hard job of working with the real Chinese.

Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, professor of history at Georgetown University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is the author of "The China Threat: Memories, Myths, and Realities in the 1950s."