BEIJING – For decades, Ho Pin made accurate predictions about China’s next leadership lineup — no small feat, given the black-box nature of Beijing politics.
But now, days before the opening on Sunday of China’s most important political meeting in a decade, the New York-based journalist said there’s little point, given the power amassed by leader Xi Jinping.
“It’s not about who’s going to be in the Standing Committee any longer,” he said, referring to the handful of people who will be named to lead the ruling Communist Party for the next five years. “No matter who they are, they all have one thing in common: They all have to listen to Xi.”
It’s a sharp contrast from an earlier era, when jostling factions leaked salacious details to the foreign media, and a reflection of a consolidation of power that has swept away competitors and stifled internal dissent.
Ten years ago, scandal after scandal rocked Beijing’s political establishment in the run-up to a Communist Party congress, the one that brought Xi to power.
Most damaging was the murder of a British businessman by the wife of Bo Xilai, a brash and rising political star. Bo was expelled from the party and sentenced to life in prison for bribery and corruption — eliminating a chief rival to Xi.
The run-up to this party congress, by comparison, is hushed. Gone, Ho said, are the factions, pluralism and open political differences that once existed within China’s one-party system.
“Chinese politics is entering a completely new stage,” he said.
Even in the days of Chairman Mao Zedong, who founded communist China in 1949, there were competing factions. Politicians were purged, then rehabilitated, then purged again, as Mao encouraged factional struggle to enhance his own power.
After Mao's death, leader Deng Xiaoping loosened controls dramatically, sparking an economic boom and some liberalization. He also instituted terms for party leaders, meant to prevent the rise of another strongman like Mao.
But Xi has swept those rules aside. The party has loosened age restrictions, stopped naming obvious successors to the Standing Committee, and scrapped term limits for China’s presidency, paving the way for Xi to retain power for a third five-year term, and possibly indefinitely.
That has made it more difficult to guess new appointments, Ho said. The previously formulaic rules of succession helped Ho to forecast China’s leadership lineup four times since 2002 by analyzing officials based on their age, education, work experience and relationship with other leaders.
Now, he said, China’s new leaders are much more likely to be handpicked by Xi based on their competency and loyalty, unconstrained by past precedent and with little of the factional wheeling-and-dealing that used to take place.
But former Hong Kong journalist Willy Lam and other analysts such as Derek Scissors at the American Enterprise Institute say Xi could still be forced to compromise and keep or promote people with different views on China’s governance.
Reliable information on who might be appointed has become extremely hard to come by under the state’s tightening grip, said Alfred Wu, a Singapore-based professor who rubbed shoulders with China’s leader decades ago as a journalist, when Xi was governor of Fujian province.
“It’s very hard to have substantive conversations,” he said of his former contacts. “They know it’s not good to talk about politics.”
Ho was born in China and got his start at a state-run broadcaster in the 1980s. When pro-democracy protests came to Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, Ho was there, writing for a Hong Kong paper, with access to high level officials. He left days before soldiers opened fire on protesters, convinced that bloodshed was inevitable.
After slipping across the border to Macao, Ho moved to Canada, then the United States, settling in Great Neck, a suburb of New York with a sizeable Chinese population.
After a stint working for a Taiwanese paper, he started a Chinese-language media group, Mingjing — which means “The Mirror" — that runs news websites, magazines and bookstores in Taiwan and the U.S.
He mingles with sources and emigres in Chinese restaurants and at his office in Great Neck, which has shelves stacked with books and a picture of him with Tibet’s spiritual leader in exile, the Dalai Lama. At times, he offers scathing criticism of the Communist Party, and said he has no plans to go back.
Despite that, Ho refers to China as his motherland, not America. His publications and YouTube channel are in Mandarin for a Chinese audience. In contrast to many dissident Chinese overseas, Ho often takes a dim view of American politics and blasts failures and flaws in the U.S. system just as he criticizes the Chinese government.
But the one thing Ho does appreciate about the U.S. is the freedom to speak openly. “There’s no police knocking at your door here,” he said.
Many of Ho’s competitors in Chinese-language media overseas peddle conspiracy theories, driven by sheer opposition to Beijing. One, a journalist linked to the Falun Gong sect, spread rumors of a coup in China last month that turned out to be false.
Ho's media group, in contrast, is generally grounded in fact, though it is heavy on Chinese political gossip. He has made a prediction for who will make up China’s next generation of leaders, but instead of making it public, he has set up a game that allows his audience to make predictions themselves — a way of keeping them engaged.
Ho is scathing about Xi’s crackdown on press freedoms, and said Beijing's stiff propaganda and assertive diplomacy have ruined China’s global reputation.
But contrary to many Western observers, he suggested Xi still has a chance to be a great leader. If he plays his cards right, Ho said, Xi’s iron rule could ultimately steer China away from collapse and avert the fate of the Soviet Union.
“It is very different from the China I imagined 30 years ago,” he said, “but it isn’t a simple reversion back to the Cultural Revolution, nor a move towards Western democracy.”
Though some businesspeople and intellectuals dislike Xi, he still enjoys widespread support, Ho said. Many people have benefited from his programs to expand the social safety net, and agree with his nationalistic stance pitting China against the West.
Many Chinese have gone abroad, only to find that the West isn’t all that great, he said. America’s aging subways and struggling railways stand in stark contrast to China’s gleaming new infrastructure. Chinese contrast the chaos of elections in the West, Ho said, with the stability under Xi’s rule.
“The younger generation in China has a strong sense of national pride,” he said. “That’s a very strong foundation for Xi Jinping.”
The biggest danger, Ho said, is that Xi rules for life, surrounded by “yes men.” If the question of succession is not resolved, he said China could fall into chaos, as it did in the final years of Mao's rule. It’s a question of how Xi’s power is handed over, and who inherits it.
“If he becomes a lifelong dictator, it will be a disaster for the world, and a disaster for China,” Ho said. ___
Kang reported from Beijing.