Meet China’s Next Leaders

A who's who of the top contenders for the Middle Kingdom's most powerful jobs.

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

In October 2007, nine of the most powerful men in China walked across a stage in the massive Great Hall of the People, at the closing of the Communist Party’s twice-a-decade National Congress. "Once they were assembled, an untrained eye might have had difficulty telling them apart," Financial Times journalist Richard Macgregor writes in his 2010 book The Party about China’s communist rulers. "The nine all wore dark suits, and all but one sported a red tie. They all displayed slick, jet-black pompadours, a product of the uniform addiction to regular hair-dyeing of senior Chinese politicians, a habit only broken by retirement or imprisonment."

The nine men’s order on the stage announced to the outside world their ranking in the Politburo Standing Committee, the governing body that rules China and seemed to signify the inevitability of their leadership–ignoring the reality of infighting, jockeying, and compromise by the party elites who selected the nine members far away from the public eye. For those watching at home, these nine men with different ideas, personalities, and networks were distinguishable by their distance from the center of power.

If tradition holds, another group of men will again stroll across the stage in October during the 18th National Congress, this time led by Xi Jinping, the man widely expected to replace Hu Jintao, followed by Li Keqiang, whom party watchers expect will replace Wen Jiabao as premier. The next seven spots (or five or six; Hu Jintao is reportedly pushing for a smaller Standing Committee so that he maintains more influence after he steps down) are likely open and fiercely contested by roughly a dozen powerful men — and one woman. Wang Yang, party secretary of Guangdong, China’s most popular province and the subject of a profile in Foreign Policy’s latest issue is one contender. The outside world knows little about Wang and the other personalities or their standings in the party elite. "The deals are so complicated," says Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese elite politics at the Brookings Institution. "We don’t know the facts involved. We know one hundredth of what [the party elite] knows." With those caveats in mind, here are five people besides Xi and Li whose smiling, stage-managed faces we might see on that red stage in October.

 Wang Qishan

The mayor of Beijing from 2003 to 2007, Wang Qishan is currently the vice premier responsible for economic, energy, and financial affairs, serving under outgoing premier Wen. Wang’s former counterpart, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, called him "decisive and inquisitive," with a "wicked sense of humor." The son-in-law of the late Vice Premier Yao Yilin, Wang is one of the princelings, a group of often high-ranking leaders who are the sons and daughters of top officials. Chinese political observers see princelings like Wang as more closely allied with the leadership faction of former President Jiang Zemin than that of current President Hu Jintao. Brookings’ Li thinks Wang, nicknamed "chief of the fire brigade" for his competence amid crisis, is almost certain to obtain a seat on the Standing Committee.

Zhang Gaoli

The party secretary of the metropolis of Tianjin and an economist who formerly worked in the oil industry, Zhang is known as being low-key, even for a Chinese official. In 2011, Tianjin under his stewardship grew at 16.4 percent, the highest rate in China, tied with the metropolis of Chongqing. Zhang is seen as a protégé of Jiang Zemin and Jiang advisor Zeng Qinghong; he is known for his pro-market leanings, having served as party secretary of Shenzhen, China’s center of cowboy capitalism, from 1997 to 2001. But if Binhai, the development zone that has driven much of Tianjin’s growth, fails under Zhang’s stewardship, it could hurt his chances of promotion.

Hu Chunhua

Seen as an ally of Hu Jintao, "Little Hu," as he’s known in China (he’s unrelated to Hu Jintao) is party secretary of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, a massive, coal-rich area in the country’s north. If the 49-year-old Hu does ascend to the Standing Committee, he will be the youngest member and possibly the core of the sixth generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders, a strong contender to replace Xi Jinping as party secretary in 2022. (Hu Jintao was also 49, and the youngest member, when appointed to the Standing Committee in 1992.) Like Hu Jintao, who served as party secretary of Tibet and Guizhou, Hu Chunhua has extensive experience dealing with Chinese minorities, an important qualification given the instability of areas like Tibet and Xinjiang. He spent 23 years in the Tibetan provincial government, and reportedly speaks fluent Tibetan, rare for a Chinese official. For now, Little Hu would likely be one of the lower-ranking members, like Hu Jintao in 1992 (7th) and Xi Jinping in 2007 (6th).

Liu Yandong

Currently the only woman in the 25-member Politburo, the decision-making body a rung down from the Standing Committee, Liu is state councilor, an assistant to China’s premier and vice-premiers. She’s seen as a protégé of both Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. She graduated from Hu’s alma matter Tsinghua University, and served as his deputy in the Communist Youth League, an organization that Hu ran and is seen as his power base. Liu is a princeling; her father was formerly a vice minister of agriculture and introduced Jiang Zemin’s adopted father to the Communist Party in 1927. She would be the first woman in Chinese Communist Party history to make it to the Standing Committee, though Liu, at 66, might be too old. The Politburo has an unofficial retirement age of 68, and Liu’s chances could be hurt "if the leadership decides to make this supreme decision-making body younger," writes Li.

Yu Zhengsheng

Shanghai Party Secretary Yu’s career has had the most public vicissitudes of any current Chinese leader. In 1985, Yu’s brother, the former director of the Beijing National Security Bureau, defected to the United States. Yu, a princeling who reportedly had close ties to the family of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, managed to salvage his career and spent six years as the party secretary of Hubei province before being appointed to his current position in 2007. But everyone else on this list might have similar skeletons in their closet; the code of silence surrounding the Chinese Communist Party means it’s unlikely that that information will ever be made public.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola