Opportunity Lost?

Inside China's leadership transition.

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

For a country widely seen as the world’s other superpower, we know shockingly little about the worldviews, values, and socioeconomic policies of the seven men just named the new leaders of China. Unlike American politicians, Chinese leaders carry out their campaigns largely behind closed doors, and they are not chosen by the people.

But this year’s once-a-decade power transfer was particularly opaque, clouded by the recent eruption of unprecedented political scandals. One was the dramatic March downfall of Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, an ambitious and charismatic political heavyweight, toppled amid a murder case involving his wife. Another was the sudden removal of Ling Jihua, President Hu Jintao’s chief of staff, from the center of power on the eve of the 18th Party Congress. These astonishing events have heightened the risk of social instability in China and fueled uncertainty over the country’s political trajectory. And the composition of the new Chinese leadership may even heighten that risk.

As China’s new leaders are unveiled, we can begin to answer some important questions: Are there clear winners and losers? Can the identities of newly promoted leaders help us understand where China is headed?

Above all, the makeup of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top ruling body, will do much to determine the direction and pace of the next phase of economic reform, as well as the arc of sociopolitical change in the country (See Table 1). In Beijing, perhaps even more than in Washington, personnel is policy. To understand politics in China therefore requires looking at all aspects of this historic leadership change, from its overall process to the means of selection to the resulting factional balance of power.

Troubling episodes prior to the Party Congress (especially the Bo Xilai scandal) notwithstanding, this most recent political succession was the second peaceful transition of power in China’s history, following the first one in 2002, when Jiang Zemin handed power to Hu. It has generally complied with the rules and norms regarding age limits (all members of the previous Central Committee, the leadership body made up of most of the important national and provincial leaders in the country, who were born in or before 1944 have resigned). The turnover rates in all leadership organs selected at the congress are remarkably high: 64 percent of the Central Committee, 77 percent of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the country’s top anti-corruption agency, 71 percent of the Politburo Standing Committee, and 64 percent of the Central Military Commission, the organization that manages China’s army, are first-timers (see Chart 1).

As with previous party congresses, the Chinese leadership utilized a method of multi-candidate election for the Central Committee known as a “more candidates than seats election” (cha’e xuanju). At the election for full members of the Central Committee, over 2,200 delegates of the congress chose 205 full members from the 224 candidates on the ballot (9.3 percent were eliminated). Similarly, in the election for alternate members of the Central Committee, they elected 171 leaders from a candidate pool of 190 (11.1 percent were eliminated).

Those eliminated included prominent figures such as Minister of Commerce Chen Deming (who some in China thought had been a contender for the Politburo) and Ma Wen, who, as the head of the Ministry of Supervision, the body that monitors government officials, is one of the most influential female leaders in the country. Minister of Finance Xie Xuren, Minister of the National Development and Reform Commission Zhang Ping, central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan, and top military official Zhang Qingsheng were not elected to the new Central Committee, even though they are of eligible age.

Instead of following the practice of his predecessor Jiang, who retained the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission for two years following the last succession, Hu gave up his military position during this leadership transition. By surrendering power to Xi, Hu set a great example for a more institutionalized and complete political succession and strengthened the relationship among the party, the state, and the army.

Most of these institutional rules and norms, however, are not new. Many important institutional measures adopted at this year’s Party Congress were first used either at the 13th Party Congress in 1987 or the 15th Party Congress in 1997. As early as 1987, the party had adopted the “more candidates than seats election” for the Central Committee. The scope and scale of open competition in terms of the percentages of candidates eliminated have not increased significantly over the past 25 years.

There appears to have been no intra-party multiple-candidate election for the Politburo and its Standing Committee. These leaders are still selected the old-fashioned way: through behind-the-scenes deal-making, a process that retired leaders still influence heavily. Introducing intra-party multiple-candidate elections at this level would provide a new source of legitimacy and enhance elite cohesion. By not doing so this time around, China’s leaders missed a big opportunity.

The biggest and potentially most consequential disappointment, however is the factional imbalance of the Standing Committee. Although the party monopolizes power in China, the party leadership is not monolithic. Two main political factions within the party leadership are currently competing for power, influence, and control over policy initiatives.

The top members of the Jiang camp are “princelings” — leaders who come from families of veteran revolutionaries or of high-ranking officials. The other camp, headed by Hu Jintao, consists of leaders who advanced their political careers via the Chinese Communist Youth League (the group is known as the tuanpai).

This bifurcation has created something approximating a mechanism of checks and balances in the decision-making process. Leaders of these two competing factions differ in expertise, credentials, and experience. They represent different socioeconomic classes and different geographic regions, but often cooperate in order to govern effectively. If the two factions do not maintain balance, the defeated faction could become less cooperative. More worryingly, it could use its political resources and socioeconomic constituencies to engage in a vicious power struggle, potentially undermining the legitimacy of the political system and threatening the stability of the country at large.

In this latest leadership changeover, the balance in the new Standing Committee indeed seems to have been broken. Only two are tuanpai; the other five are all protégés of Jiang Zemin (and one of the tuanpai, former head of the Propaganda Department Liu Yunshan, is actually very close to Jiang). By contrast, the balance between the two camps in the Politburo and the Central Military Commission have largely stayed intact (see Table 2), and many of Hu’s people made it into the 376-member Central Committee.

Additionally, the number of princelings in both top civilian and military leadership bodies is unprecedentedly high (see Table 3 and 4), including four (57 percent) of the seven Standing Committee members and four (36 percent) of the 11 members of the Central Military Commission.  Both percentages are a significant increase over the previous congress. It has been widely noted that large numbers of party leaders have used their political power to convert the assets of the state into their own private wealth. The strong presence of princelings in the top leadership is likely to reinforce public perceptions of this convergence of power and wealth in the country. In his remarks Thursday, Xi claimed that his administration’s top priority will be to increase fairness and equality and to crack down on corruption. Chinese will hear these words with skepticism in light of the princelings’ dominance of the country’s highest levels of power. As a result, the credibility of the new leadership as a whole will likely be significantly undermined.

That said, the four princeling leaders on the Standing Committee — Xi Jinping, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, and Wang Qishan — all have decades of experience and high levels of competence in economic and financial affairs. The new Standing Committee will likely emphasize economic reform, especially promoting the private sector and accelerating financial liberalization in order to make the middle class happy. The problem is that China’s next phase of economic reform needs parallel political reform.

But there are good reasons to doubt that political reform is coming soon. The exclusion of two key liberals — Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang — from the Standing Committee is particularly worrying. The Chinese public will likely understand why Wang Yang is out; many conservative leaders saw him as a threat. Wang’s main political rival was Bo Xilai, and the two tended to balance each other in terms of power, influence and policy agenda. Now that Bo is out, the conservatives do not want Wang in. That Li Yuanchao didn’t get elevated, however, was surprising. An instrumental voice for the liberal intellectuals who demand rule of law, governmental accountability, and intra-party democracy, Li has many supporters. He has also played a crucial role in attracting foreign-educated returnees and promoting the college graduates who work as village cadres.

All this means that China’s much-needed political reform may be delayed. Public demand for a more competitive, more institutionalized, more transparent political system will, however, only become stronger.

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