China’s leadership transition: a fight behind closed doors



As the once-in-a-decade transfer of political power in China looms, the consequences for the country’s foreign policy, economic development, political reform, and military affairs is hard to overstate.

In Autumn, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will hold its 18th National People’s Congress, changing over all nine positions in the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest decision making body.

At least 14 members of the full 25-member Politburo will retire, making way for younger members to take their seats. This once-in-a decade event means that in late 2012, the principal leaders in China’s political hierarchy will almost all be newcomers.

For some months, the front runner for the top position in the Standing Committee has been Xi Jinping. Xi is currently China’s Vice-President, Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission, President of the Central Party School, and the sixth-ranked member of the Politburo Standing Committee.

If Xi is tapped, he will succeed China’s present premier leader Hu Jintao and take the roles of General Secretary of the Communist Party, President of the People’s Republic of China, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Widely expected to move into the Prime Minister position, currently held by Wen Jiabao, is Li Kejiang. Li is executive Vice-Premier, deputy Party secretary of the State Council, and the 7th ranked member of the Politburo Standing Committee. Li is Wen Jiabao’s top lieutenant and deeply engaged in China’s overall economic management.

Both Xi and Li are already members of the Politburo Standing Committee, which means that they will take two of the available nine seats. That leaves seven seats up for grabs. Current frontrunners for the other positions include Liu Yunshan, the head of the Publicity Department of the CPC Central Committee, Li Yuanchao, the current Party Organisation Department Chief, Wang Qishan, a Vice Premier, Wang Yang, the current Party Chief of Guangdong, Liu Yandong, a State Councillor, Zhang Gaoli, the Secretary of the CCP Tianjin Municipal Committee, and Zhang Dejiang, a Vice Premier.

While Chinese politics are a murky affair at best, the general consensus among China watchers is that a major concern among current leaders is that the fifth generation leadership represent a balance between two competing factions within the Chinese government and CCP.

The first faction, known in Chinese as taizidang (the party of the princelings), is made up of the more elitist allies of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. Many taizidang members are the children of past top leaders and have enjoyed privileged upbringings.

While distrusted for much of the 1990s for their reliance on blood ties to secure political positions, these “princelings” have consolidated an impressive amount of power over the past decade. Some party leaders ostensibly support the taizidang because they believe they are the most likely group to want to stave off reform. The taizidang has, after all, largely benefited from the status quo. Xi Jinping is a member of the taizidang.

The second faction, of which Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are members, is the tuanpai, or the Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL). This group is more committed to continual economic reform in line with market liberalism and at least pays lip service to political reform. This group represents a continuation of Deng Xiaoping’s “open and reform” policy and advocates gradual reform. Li Kejiang is a member of the CCYL clique.

While it is impossible to tell what sort of backroom negotiations contribute to the balance of power between the taizidang and the CCYL, the very public (and publicised) political jockeying between Wang Yang and Bo Xilai, the Party Secretary of Chongqing Municipality, for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee provided some insight into the process. For much of the past year, Chinese language and international media sources reported on Wang and Bo’s competition as if the outcome would determine a new direction for Chinese politics.

Bo represented the princelings and made his case for leadership through a raucous anti-organised crime campaign peppered with neo-Maoist slogans. He led attacks against Chongqing’s business elite, accusing them of corruption and seizing their wealth, while building affordable housing for the city’s poor. His populous policies, good looks, and charisma made him a popular leader. Many observers believed the favour lay with Bo in his contest with Wang.

In contrast, Wang led a somewhat unassuming effort at economic and political reform in Guangdong province. His signature achievement was the peaceful resolution of a major protest in Wukang Village that had garnered international attention. Despite his successes, he did not gain the same enthusiastic following among the Chinese or international media.

Wang and Bo’s competition came to a head at the annual National People’s Congress in March 2012. Chinese leadership removed Bo from office, effectively killing his political career. Media sources pointed to a scandal involving his former chief of police as the primary cause, but analysts generally agree that it was Bo’s high profile political style and an internal victory by the CCYL faction that caused his downfall. While much can be made of Bo’s fall from grace, that Chinese leadership replaced him with Zhang Dejiang, a man from the taizidang, indicates that neither faction has gained an absolute advantage.

The fight for China’s future continues behind closed doors.