China’s leadership: Out with the old, in with the old
November 16th, 2012
06:36 PM ET

China’s leadership: Out with the old, in with the old

By Steven W. Lewis, Special to CNN

Steven W. Lewis is an Asia Society associate fellow and C.V. Starr Transnational China Fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. The views expressed are his own.

During the lead up to the 18th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party last week, expectations among Chinese citizens and foreign observers were high that at its conclusion the new General Secretary Xi Jinping would introduce a vigorous Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). It was hoped the new leadership could move aggressively to address the many political problems facing China: from widespread official corruption at the highest levels to protests against unpopular development plans by local governments. Speculation among Chinese netizens on Weibo microblog sites, and among in-the-know Hong Kong and Taiwanese media, was that younger local leaders such as Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang (57), who had deftly responded to local protests and stepped in to replace unpopular local leaders beneath him, would constitute the majority of the incoming PBSC.

Instead, what the Chinese people and the world saw at the press conference in the Great Hall of the People on November 15 was two fifty-somethings, Xi Jinping (59) and Li Keqiang (57), joined by five sixty-somethings, many of them with strong ties to former leader Jiang Zemin (top Party leader from 1989 to 2002) and having clear reputations for being Party stalwarts. Given that the outgoing party secretary was not even allowed to retain membership on the Central Military Commission, as his predecessor Jiang had done in 2002, the message was clear: Hu Jintao and outgoing-Premier Wen Jiabao’s tentative political reforms did not translate into personnel changes at the top that could last beyond their tenure in Zhongnanhai. Jiang and his supporters clearly held sway, although given Party rules restricting the age of PBSC leaders to those under 68, their victory merely means that any real transition in leadership, and vigorous political reforms to accompany them, is likely going to have to wait until 2017, when the five elder “chaperones” on the PBSC are required to finally retire and let the “next generation” take charge.

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Why the delayed transition? We will likely have to wait decades to find out the untold blow-by-blow story of the 18th Party Congress, but several structural features surrounding the new leadership team suggest that the Communist Party is facing serious internal division over the direction and speed of political reform.

First, the Party leadership agreed to “choke up on the bat” and reduce the size of the Politburo Standing Committee from nine to seven. In reducing the number of contending personalities and agendas that have veto power over day-to-day decision-making at the center of the Party, they are making it more likely they will be able to reach policy consensus. Related, they chose to fill those seven positions men who are not known for flamboyance, idiosyncrasy, iconoclasm, color or excessive individualism: or, in other words, cadres not like Bo Xilai, the former Politburo member ousted for alleged family crimes and corruption, but also for public behavior and populist leadership style calculated to distinguish himself from the traditional faceless technocrat who has controlled the Party for the last three decades.

Second, although the 200 or so Central Committee members are increasingly drawn from the ranks of local leaders who have served long terms within one locality, the Party leadership chose for the PBSC cadres who have experience working in multiple localities. The 17th PBSC had nine leaders who had served in 18 of China’s provinces, cities and special autonomous regions, for an average of three locations for each leader. The new 18th PBSC has only seven leaders, but they have served in almost half (15) of China’s localities, also for an average of three localities each.  China is a very diverse and a very large country, and its new Party leaders have personal experience working in half of its local governments.

Fewer seats at the top table, but an equally large number of ties and connections to China’s many localities, indicates a de facto centralization of power within top organs of the Communist Party. The fact that five of the seven men sitting at that table must leave the room in 2017 means that if new Party Secretary and President Xi Jinping and his right-hand man premier-designate Li Keqiang wish to take charge and steer the government in a new direction, they will have to come to terms with the man who was largely responsible for seating those five men at the table: 86-year-old Party patriarch Jiang Zemin. Political reform in China is officially a waiting game, and Jiang’s health is set to become the truest barometer of political change in the next five years.

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Topics: China

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soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    The former president Jiang Zemin appears to be keeping his fingers on the buttons of power long into retirement, ensuring his own protégés will carry out his bidding. Hu Jintao on the other hand had demonstratively given up all political posts.
    Whatever schisms behind closed doors, the hushed formality of the leadership change was meant to reassure citizens that the party is firmly in control. China's political elites have to be prepared to face unexpected changes and will have to improvise and play by ears in the course of time.

    November 17, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  2. 100 % ETHIO

    President Hu Jintao, was very-smart, humble and patience, when he approaches and being approached by Foreign leaders.
    He dealt with them, accordingly.

    According to the Media review, the new President Xi Jinping, seems more aggressive to the West.
    Recently, he respond without hesitation, the current Western accusation against his Country. He said, "Why Chinese spy, if you have evidence, bring it on!"

    November 17, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Reply
  3. mark

    I have a somewhat different opinion. By seating other five members at the PBSC who can only serve form one term, Xi and Li actually have more leverage in dictating the direction of change if they want. In addition, it also make Jiang looks very bad in the public eyes.

    November 19, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  4. RLTJ's

    One of the reasons of a leadership change might be a substantial change in the present political-economic directions and might not really be anything personal against the outgoing leaders.

    But the case of Bo Xilai appears to be a piece of jigsaw that will fit somewhere.

    November 19, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  5. RLTJ's

    Popularity, not necessarily popularity to the public, is still part of the game.

    November 19, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Reply
  6. Marco Hsiao

    [Responsible change: Hu is a great statesman]

    Hu is 69, Xi is 59; it is 10 years younger. Wen is 69, Li is 57; it is 12 years younger. The other 7 members are replaced with 5 new members, they are 5 years younger. (Always there are many exciting books in Hon Kong, some might be written by novelists for money, some by Taiwanese writers secretly, some by CIA secretly, lots of are rumors.)

    In my opinion, this change is successful in both China's future and Hu's will. Future historians will praise Hu (possibly far higher than Obama). Although he has some mistakes, however he is very responsible on finance, national development (from 5th largest economy to 2nd largest economy) and improving living standard largely for 1 billion people.

    7 is better than 9 for Xi to make decision easily. Hu lets Xi to lead Central Military Commission immediately is a good thing. (On the other hand, Russian President Putin is on power so long.) 5 members are older than Xi, it means 5 years later they (majority) will retire. Obama's positive legacy is great for African American, but negative is terrible big debt (with beautiful words); Hu's legacy is making good base for constructing a greatest country.

    November 20, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Reply
  7. Marco Hsiao

    [Rise and fall of great powers]

    If the trends are continuous: Mainland China will become largest GDP (in PPP) and largest importer on the earth in about 2018. Country become stronger, majority people have higher living standard, and the social security is good. Many small groceries in cities of Mainland China are opening for 24 hours. It is safe for women to shop on the deep night in Mainland China.

    If the trends are continuous: The US Federal government will bankrupt in about 2019. The Federal revenue is 2.2 trillion but spending is 3.5 trillion; the debt is bigger and bigger. The irresponsible US politicians just speak beautiful words. Besides, the US crime rate and incarceration rate both are always high.

    November 20, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Reply
    • Bob

      I think you need to board the next ship to China..........No sense in you being on the "losing" side........

      November 24, 2012 at 12:03 am | Reply

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