Australia Network Logo
Inside China's leadership
Jim Middleton speaks with Robert Kuhn, a corporate strategist and author, who's been an adviser to Xi Jinping and has seen China's new leader up close.

Robert Kuhn is a businessman and corporate strategist, a seemingly unlikely adviser to Communist Party leaders.

But over the past 20 years he's formed close links with China's leadership and has been an adviser to Xi Jinping.

He's also the author of the book "How China's leaders think: the inside story of China's reform and what this means for the future".
JIM MIDDLETON:Robert Kuhn a delight to be talking to you.


JIM MIDDLETON: How does a US businessman and corporate strategist come to be an advisor the next president of China?

ROBERT KUHN: Well, I met Mr Xi Jinping in the beginning of 2005. And I met him because I gave him one of the first copies of the biography of president Jiang.

ROBERT KUHN: And this was two or three weeks after the book was published, so thought I was the first person to give it to him, and I gave it to him, make believe your Xi, and he thanked me. He was very warm and gracious. But he immediately flipped through it and turned to one of the photographic sections as if he knew what the book was.

And he immediately opened it and pointed to a picture of president Jiang with some women from the military singing and he said to me, 'who is this woman?' And I said that's a woman and she's singing with president Jiang. And he said, 'no, but who specifically?' And he said, 'that's my wife.'

I didn't know it at the time and it was very gracious, obviously he had gotten the book from president Jiang a few days or a week earlier, but I was very impressed with him in that meeting. He had none of the airs of a high official. I have met many high officials in lots of formal settings, and a lot of it is rather regal with ceremonial things. None of that.

He was very comfortable if his own skin and all my subsequent meetings had that same style. I couldn't tell you that he was going to be the president at that time but could see this was an individual who is dedicated to the country, who had a good sense of his geography and what he was doing. And was a very serious leader who had the interest of his responsibilities as his primary interest, as opposed to his own persona.

JIM MIDDLETON: There are many questions surrounding the transition, this once in a decade change in leadership in China. But here is one of them. The Army is almost as important, if not as important, as the Communist Party in this country.

There's speculation that, unlike Jiang Zemin, that Hu Jintao will not continue to be head of the Military Commission. If that turns out to be the case, what do you think it will mean and is it better or worse for China's future?

ROBERT KUHN: I've taken a contrary position on this. I do think that the predominance of rumours that we hear recently will be that Hu Jintao will resign and it will be a complete transition. But that is not 100 per cent sure. But I've made this point. I don't think it makes a lot of difference. What makes a difference ...

JIM MIDDLETON: But is the case that unlike Hu Jintao himself with Jiang Zemin, he doesn't have someone from the past looking over his shoulder and that makes a difference about the quality and the nature of decision making?

ROBERT KUHN: Again, I am not sure that that really matters in terms of that position, because what matters is the substance, not the form. That position can have substance or it can have form.

The key is in China is the composition of the Standing Committee of the Politburo. That
s the real power in China. Westerners look at the Standing Committee, they see right now it's nine, tomorrow it will be seven, individuals and it looks like the American cabinet and the British cabinet and the Australian cabinet where the president can arbitrarily hire and fire whoever he wants capriciously. Not the case.

Each individual is a complete power in his own right. They have equal votes, the president of the country head of the party Xi Jinping, general secretary, is the first among equals and he still only has one vote. Everybody has their own portfolio and they only report to the collective. That's the real power.

So who you have there in terms of your mentees, what the coalitions are, how that works; that's the real power.

JIM MIDDLETON: Is it your instinct or your sense from your association with Mr Xi that he is by instinct a reformer, or a steady as you go guy, or, and also rather I should say, will he have around him the Standing Committee that enables China to follow the course that he would like?

ROBERT KUHN: Good. Very important questions.

My view of Xi is that he really understands China and in all my conversations with him he had a deep understanding - he actually helped me understand China when I was writing my books the way I should look at it. So that's number one. He not a radical reformer in any way but he does appreciate, for example, private business. He ran Zhejiang province. And if you look at the common standing members, the majority, maybe six out of the seven have run two or more major provinces or major municipalities. All of which are the equivalent of middle or large-sized European countries in terms of population and even now in terms GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

So it's a remarkable collection of individuals who have had tremendous executive, CEO responsibility for running what are in essence major countries. And so when they get together it's group that will be supportive of what's needed for China, that I believe.

As to the positioning liberal conservative, I think we will see in the world's media an attempt to characterise the standing committee as more conservative than it might have been with some other people. I think that is an over simplification. I know the individuals on all sides of the coming seven, I know five personally, and of the candidates I know most of them personally. And I can tell you that those people who are claimed to be very liberal are not as liberal as people think. And those who are supposedly very conservative are not as conservative as people think.

I think it's very sophisticated group that will enable Xi to have his vision more so than he might have because of all these external pressures and the scandals etc. And I think that bodes well. But do not look for radical reform but look for reform perhaps sooner than we thought.

JIM MIDDLETON: One final subject, you briefed Xi Jinping for his visit to the United States and met president Obama and other significant policy makers. Relations with the United States are going to be of great importance in the coming decade.

ROBERT KUHN: For sure.

JIM MIDDLETON: Do you think by instinct Mr Xi is a man who wants to compete with or cooperate with the United States in, as it were, a shared leadership of global responsibilities?

ROBERT KUHN: Xi is a very sophisticated individual and he will see himself, much as Jiang Zemin did, as a real patriot of China, but seeing that to develop China is important to have very good relations with the US. That said, in his early part of his term, I look for him to be more nationalistic.

He has good relationship with the military. He cannot afford to be soft on relations with the US or anything that violates Chinese sovereignty, especially if he is going to institute reform because reform has this liberal connotation. So if he needs to do reform, which he needs to do for economic and political reasons, he cannot afford to look like he's soft or liberal in international relations.

So I look for him to make important decisions economically and politically, and balanced off with a fairly aggressive nationalistic posture. But over time I see him being very sophisticated in his view of the United States. His visit to the United States last February was a tremendous success, the biggest and best publicity China has had actually since Jiang Zemin's visit in 1997. It was very effective.

JIM MIDDLETON: Fascinating stuff.

Robert Kuhn, our time's up, thank you very much indeed.

ROBERT KUHN: Great fun, Jim. Substantive too!

(Both laugh)
Home and Away
Improve Your English
Explore Australia Network
TV Guide
Ways to Watch
Learning English
Sports Lounge
About Us
Australia Network Home
© ABC 2014