Everything You Need To Know About China's Mysterious Leadership Transition

China communist party singers

Photo: ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

China is due for a handover of power to the ‘fifth generation’ of communist party leaders on November 8.This week the Communist Party will name the new leaders of the party (the politburo and its standing committee) and the central military commission.

The new State Council, which is in essence the government, is slated to be announced in March 2013 at the 12th National People’s Congress.

While much has been made of the transition, there’s still a lot of confusion about the structure of the Chinese Communist Party, its make-up, how leaders are chosen and how long they can stay in power.

You might be surprised to learn that most of the ‘fifth generation’ comes from two distinct ideological sets with vastly differing ideologies, according to a report by John Dotson at the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC).

The first camp consists of the ‘princelings’ i.e. the children of high-powered revolutionary era officials and the ‘Shanghai clique’ i.e. they have significant experience running the country’s economically strong coastal provinces. China’s future leader Xi Jinping is a princeling.

Leaders from this faction, “tend to favour policies that maximise economic growth, with a greater acceptance of growing disparities of wealth; that promote the interests of China’s emerging business and professional classes; and that continue economic policies that benefit China’s more prosperous coastal regions,” according to Dotson. 

The second camp is the ‘tuanpai’ and refers to those leaders who have emerged from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) youth organisation. Unlike the Shanghai Clique, these leaders tend to have experience working in the nation’s poorer provinces that are further inland and push for policies that would develop these parts of the country and prevent social instability.

“They also tend to share experience working in China’s poorer, inland provinces, as well as experience in ‘Party Affairs’ work such as propaganda, personnel administration, and the ‘united front’ management of labour, ethnic, and religious organisations,” according to Dotson. Li Keqiang, premiere-in-waiting, has emerged from this faction. 

This diverse make-up of the fifth generation is expected to cause some political infighting. It is also said to have been expedited Bo Xilai’s downfall since he was known to have angered senior party members. But the fifth generation is likely to put on a united front to avoid a repeat of the political rift that emerged in the late 1980s, culminated in the Tiananmen Square incident and nearly toppled the communist government. 

The new face of China

Another reason this handover has received so much attention is because of the number of new leaders expected to take power. The Politburo consists of a group of 25 leaders who lead the communist party. With Bo’s dismissal it is down to 24, and 14 of these members are expected to change.

Xi jinping

Photo: Guang Niu/Getty Images

The Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) – the most important decision making body in the country – is drawn from the Politburo, and seven of the nine PSC members will be stepping down. From Cheng Li at Brookings:“The principal figures responsible for the country’s political and ideological affairs, economic and financial administration, foreign policy, public security and military operations will largely consist of newcomers after the 18th Party Congress in the fall of 2012 and the 12th National People’s Congress in the spring of 2013. This upcoming power transition in the top leadership will likely be the largest in the past three decades.”

How exactly does it work?

Since 1987 the Communist party has been resorting to a multi-candidate election in which the top leaders decide how many members they want on their Central Committee and nominate additional candidates on the ballot, according to Cheng. The ones with the lowest votes are left off the central committee. This helps limit nepotism/cronyism. 

The Communist party has over time developed these forms of “intra-Party democracy” tactics as Cheng points out. Policymakers have over time begun to try “democratic experiments” and some like premiere Wen Jiabao think this will eventually lead to democracy.

They also have a secret ballot vote to elect party secretaries. “In general, major personnel and policy decisions are now often decided by votes in various committees, rather than solely by the committee’s party chief,” according to Cheng. Additionally, the position of the provincial party secretary is almost always given to someone from another province.

The system also has in place age limits and term limits to limit the amount of time officials spend in power.

The Fifth Generation

Leading up the to 17th Party Congress in 2007, many had expected Li Keqiang to follow Hu Jintao as president. But Xi Jinping gained significant popularity among members of the Communist Party’s central committee and is believed to have been nominated after a compromise by Hu.

Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun, former vice-premiere, gained favour with Hu Yaobang who had been chairman of the Communist Party from 1981 -1982. From Dotson:

“Xi Zhongxun’s friendship and political alliance with Hu Yaobang “in the long run gave political credits to his son [Xi Jinping] in the eyes of liberal Party officials and the so-called ‘Youth League faction’, thereby adding to the younger Xi’s value as a compromise candidate acceptable to both of the CCP’s most powerful factions.

…Xi Jinping may have been successful in rising through the CCP bureaucracy in part by being attentive to senior leaders, and circumspect in expressing his own views. Such reporting as is available paints a picture of a man who is very personable; very politically ambitious, with his eyes on a senior leadership post from an early age; and possessed of a confident belief that the children of the CCP’s revolutionary generation are the natural heirs to rule China.”

Many of the important decisions for the handover and the new PSC are believed to have taken place during this summer’s secretive Beidaihe meeting. There’s been no date set for the handover, but Chinese media reports suggest that the PSC will have only seven members, down from nine.

This piece is largely drawn from two reports 1) The China Rising Leaders Project (Part 1) by John Dotson at the USSC 2) Leadership Transition In The CPC by Cheng Li for Brookings.

Note: We first published a version of this article back in September.

SEE ALSO: 19 Crazy Things That Only Happen In China >

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