Note: Today is the second in a series of posts that detail Eurasia Group's Top Risks for 2013.
As their people grow bolder in their quest for information, China's leaders will only tighten the restrictions they place on cyberspace. China is, in fact, embarking on a worrying experiment: It is the only major power that is attempting to preserve an authoritarian system in the information age. This gigantic task will demand a great deal of leaders' attention, raise tensions among the Chinese people, and reverberate outside of China's borders through the country's foreign policy.
China's Great Firewall and unpredictable censorship regime have more or less enabled its leaders to manipulate the information accessible to its citizens. But these tools are fast becoming insufficient, a fact made clear by strikes at a major Chinese newspaper this week. China's internet users stand at more than half a billion and counting. Growing demands for transparency and information leaks that embarrass the government are inevitable, as evidenced by the public's growing awareness of high-level corruption scandals.
The Communist Party appears poised to implement a new phase of information control that is part reactive and part proactive. On the reactive side, the government has begun to disrupt virtual private networks used by many foreigners, and even some Chinese, to circumvent the country's firewall. The government will proactively attempt to capitalize on technological tools by using the internet and social media such as Weibo (China's version of Twitter) to convey its own messaging.
The friction between the government's attempts at self-preservation and the population's desire for more transparency will be the greatest political challenge for China in 2013. While the stability of the government is unlikely to be shaken in 2013, this internal conflict will distract leaders and encourage them to deflect public anger outward. Finding foreign scapegoats is a time-honored tactic that the Communist Party is likely to repeat this year.
There are plenty of foreign targets to turn to. Territorial tensions are high and are only exacerbated by the U.S. pivot to Asia, which has emboldened countries such as the Philippines to more aggressively push their interests. The largest risk is an increase in nationalism from China toward Japan, especially given the growing tension surrounding outstanding territorial disputes between the two countries.
Ultimately, though, China's attempts to limit information run counter to its stated desire to develop an innovative economy. How can China's handful of vibrant IT firms and internet giants become global competitors while operating under a regime that restricts online information? How can China become a dominant player in the global economy if it is disconnected from the global information society? These are inherent contradictions that the new Communist Party leadership will have to resolve.
On Monday, we'll profile Risk #3: Arab Summer.
By Crispin Hawes
There are a growing number of signals from Saudi Arabia that the question of when the younger generation of princes will be included in the formal line of succession has been resolved. On 5 November, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was appointed to succeed his late father as the minister of interior, a decision that is likely the result of a deal between King Abdullah and different branches of the ruling family. As a result of that appointment, an announcement on who will take the second spot in the succession is likely to come soon.
Mohammed's appointment to head the Ministry of the Interior is the latest move in an extended process aimed at setting out the ruling family's plans for the long-term succession. Prince Mohammed replaces his uncle Prince Ahmed at the ministry after a truncated term. Prince Ahmed was likely moved aside, despite official statements that he had asked to relinquish the post, and that hints at a decision on the succession. Defining the long-term line of succession requires public consensus among senior family figures, and Ahmed's recent public statements suggested that he was pushing to succeed Crown Prince Salman, who is set to take the throne on Abdullah's death. Saudi Arabia's opaque internal politics make interpreting what is happening behind the scenes very difficult, but Ahmed's replacement as interior minister could well have been triggered by his opposition to developments in the line of succession. If Abdullah has decided to appoint Prince Khaled al-Faisal as second deputy prime minister, the position occupied by the second in line, Ahmed's opposition would be enough to force his departure.
Abdullah seems intent on defining a long-term plan for the succession in an effort to prevent the kingdom from instability if, as is possible, there is a rapid series of deaths among the current and elderly ruling generation. The transition to the generation of Mohammed and Khaled al-Faisal, grandsons of Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud and modern Saudi Arabia's founder, has been the subject of speculation for years. Faisal is in his early 70s, only a few years younger than Salman, but the move is a very significant one.
Mohammed's promotion is likely part of a broader compromise between the king and the dominant Sudairi branch of the family. Again the details are impossible to confirm, but it is likely that the Sudairis have retained the interior ministry in return for agreeing to allow the insertion of the moderate Khaled al-Faisal (and not a Sudairi) in the line of succession. If that is indeed what is happening, there will almost certainly be a number of other deals emerging in coming weeks and months that will set the stage for other members of the next generation, including King Abdullah's son Mitaeb, to move into more prominent positions.
Crispin Hawes is the director of Eurasia Group's Middle East practice
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.