See also: Meet the New Politburo Standing Committee by Ken Sofer
China watchers around the world have spent most of 2012 placing bets on which of the Chinese Communist Party’s rising stars would take over when the country’s outgoing leaders retired this fall. The big news everyone was waiting for was the makeup of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top ruling body. Now those names have been announced.
As expected, China’s Politburo Standing Committee for 2012 through 2017 is smaller compared to the previous version, down from nine members to seven. This new group of leading cadres will basically serve as China’s new board of directors. During their tenure China will face major policy choices across a range of hot-button issues, with hopes that this smaller decision-making group will find it easier to reach consensus than their predecessors. In party rank order, this new group consists of:
- Xi Jinping, replacing Hu Jintao as party general secretary (head of the party) and chairman of the Central Military Commission (China’s version of military commander in chief). In addition to these party posts, Xi will also become China’s president (head of state) when the government transition takes place in March 2013
- Li Keqiang, who in addition to his Politburo Standing Committee position will officially replace Wen Jiabao as premier and head of China’s national cabinet during the March 2013 government transition
- Zhang Dejiang, who in addition to his Politburo Standing Committee position will likely replace Wu Banguo as head of China’s National People’s Congress in March 2013
- Yu Zhengsheng, who in addition to his Politburo Standing Committee position may replace Jia Qinglin as chairman of the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference in March 2013
- Liu Yunshan, who in addition to his Politburo Standing Committee position may replace Li Changchun as chairman of the Ideology and Propaganda Leading Small Group. That would make Liu the top party leader in charge of media control and censorship. Liu is already the deputy head of that leading small group and head of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee Publicity Department (the Party’s propaganda bureau).
- Wang Qishan, who in addition to his Politburo Standing Committee position is also replacing He Guoqiang as head of the Party’s Central Discipline Inspection Commission, making him the party’s new anticorruption boss
- Zhang Gaoli, who in addition to his Politburo Standing Committee position may also replace Li Keqiang as executive vice premier in March 2013. If so, he will serve as Li’s second-in-command (after Li is promoted to premier) to help manage government affairs, particularly economic policy.
In addition to their Politburo Standing Committee posts, each of these seven leaders will also be appointed to additional issue-specific posts within the party and/or government. Two critical party posts were just awarded: Xi Jinping received the party’s top military post and Wang Qishan received the top post for internal party discipline. The remaining party portfolio assignments will unfold over the coming months as Chinese leaders appoint new heads to the different party-leading small groups and commissions.
The only transitions that have officially occurred so far are those party leadership posts. The separate but overlapping government transition is still to come. Most Chinese leaders wear multiple hats: They have top party leadership positions as well as top government positions. The Chinese government leadership transition will occur at the big National People’s Congress meeting in March 2013. At that meeting Xi Jinping will officially replace Hu Jintao as president (which is Hu’s top government position), and Li Keqiang will replace Wen Jiabao as premier. Another critical government post is head of the National People’s Congress. That top legislative post always goes to one of the highest-ranking cadres on the Politburo Standing Committee, and given the rank order above, that will likely go to Zhang Dejiang.
Now the million-dollar question becomes what these new leaders will actually do. China’s leadership handovers occur via secret backroom negotiations. There are no public campaigns, and until the new leaders walk out onto the stage, many Chinese citizens have no idea who is actually in the running for these key posts or how those candidates differ from one another. Our best predictions for how these new leaders will rule are basically just speculations based on which retired leaders these new leading cadres are known to align with and how they have behaved in previous posts. Even if we do make accurate assumptions about the policy preferences of these individual standing committee members, it is hard to say how this group as a whole will interact, and those interactions are critical because all key decisions are made via consensus.
Right away, the new leaders will have to figure out how to both rebalance the Chinese economy and also how to combat internal corruption. Those are the two biggest problems facing the Chinese Communist Party’s survival at this point in time, and everyone will be watching to see if this new group can do well enough on those two issues to keep the current system going.
Prospects for economic reform still uncertain
Many analysts are concerned that this standing committee lineup reflects a return to political conservatism. The majority of these new leading cadres are considered staunch allies of Jiang Zemin and his camp of political hardliners. Jiang served as party general secretary before current outgoing General Secretary Hu Jintao, and Hu Jintao is generally considered more open to political reform than his predecessor. Some of Hu Jintao’s key protégés—particularly current Organization Department head Li Yuanchao and current Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang —were considered the party’s best hope for political reform in the 2012–2017 period, but those cadres did not make it into the standing committee.
It is important to remember, however, that Hu Jintao and outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao actually were not the great reformers many had hoped they would be. Their tenure was rather disappointing on the reform front, both economically and politically. In contrast, although Jiang Zemin is definitely a political hardliner, his administration actually made great progress on economic reform. When Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao took over they had to dedicate substantial time and resources toward cleaning up the results of those earlier reform successes (such as creating social safety nets for the workers laid off during state-owned enterprise reforms). They often made progressive statements calling for more reform and liberalization, but in terms of real action they did not make much progress.
It is hard to say with certainty which party leaders are more likely than others to push for reform, particularly economic reform. Xi Jinping is himself a wild card; no one is completely sure at this point in which direction he will go on economic reform and whether he will have the political capital to actually follow through. In recent months he has developed a reputation in Beijing of being willing to listen to everyone, including the extreme reformers and the extreme hardliners.
One thing we do know about this new group is that it will not be long lasting. Based on current retirement norms, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are the only two leaders that will serve a full 10 years (two five-year terms) in these positions. The others will all step down and be replaced at the next Party Congress in 2017, because they will be over 68 by that time and therefore ineligible for another five-year appointment. It is hard to say how that will impact decision-making behind closed doors. In theory, that could give Xi and Li extra political clout vis-à-vis the rest of the group, and that would speed up the decision-making process. The shorter time horizon will certainly give this standing committee as a whole a relatively narrow window to actually do something and cement a positive legacy. This means there is no time for a slow and gradual handover of power.
The word in Beijing is that Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang have been preparing to come quickly out of the gate and that the outgoing leaders are keen to hand the reigns over quickly lest they be blamed for any problems (particularly economic problems) that emerge during the transition period. Hu Jintao’s decision to give Xi Jinping the top military post now instead of hanging on to it for another two years (as Jiang Zemin did previously before giving it up in 2004) reflects that desire for a fast and effective transition. It is in everyone’s interest for this new group to get up and running quickly.
Fighting corruption is critical, but real progress will be difficult
The 18th Party Congress made it clear that as far as the party is concerned, although the sluggish economy is a major cause for concern, internal corruption is still their biggest threat. That is no big surprise after the year the party has had, which has seen one big scandal after another. First Bo Xilai’s spectacular fall in Chongqing, then one scandal after another at the railway ministry, and now even Premier Wen Jiabao is facing corruption allegations.
When you talk to the average Chinese citizen on the street, the anger over these corruption scandals is palpable. The economy is also a concern, but economic difficulties can be shrugged off more easily than the realization that your country’s leaders are getting rich at the public’s expense.
Chinese leaders use these big meetings in Beijing to send messages about what their latest priorities are. Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping both made fighting corruption a focus of their speeches, and Hu Jintao opened the big meeting with a stark warning that “cracking hard on and effectively preventing corruption is crucial in gaining popular support for the Party and ensuring its very survival.”
The appointment of renowned fixer Wang Qishan to the new standing committee and simultaneously as head of the party’s Central Discipline Inspection Commission also sends a strong message on corruption. Many had hoped Wang would be given a serious economic portfolio so that he could focus on economic reform. Over the past month, however, rumors have been swirling in Beijing that Wang would get the corruption post instead. That is viewed positively by some pro-reformers in China because Wang is considered a very capable leader. Any headway he makes on holding party cadres and government officials more accountable to the Chinese public will be a major improvement.
But it remains to be seen what Wang Qishan and the rest of the leadership can actually do on the corruption front. Chinese leaders clearly understand that the party cannot survive unless corruption is addressed, but corruption is a systemic issue with single-party authoritarian rule. The only way to really address this problem is with political liberalization—such as freeing up the media and the judicial system—and from the party’s prospective, that would be just as damaging.
The most we are likely to see from these new leaders overall is marginal change. Unless China experiences a major shock in the near future—such as a sustained economic crisis or a major political scandal that tarnishes the Politburo Standing Committee—the biggest incentive all of these leaders have is to keep the current system going, and that will rule out the more disruptive reform options for the time being.
Melanie Hart is a Policy Analyst for Chinese Energy and Climate Policy at the Center for American Progress.