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Primer on China’s Leadership Transition

May 8, 2011

Over the past few months, several people have written asking me to offer a short “primer” on China’s upcoming leadership transition, which begins next year.  The handover to a new president and premier has generated plenty of speculation in the press, about who the leaders are and what is will all mean, but sometimes it’s useful to go back and fill in the very basics, since China has a unique and in some ways quite confusing political system.

The first and most important thing to understand about that political system is that it is composed of three parts.  In the U.S., we have the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.  In China there is the Party, the Army, and the State.  Unlike in the U.S., where the three branches are co-equal and are specifically designed to check and balance each other’s powers, in China the Party is supreme and rules over the other two elements.  China’s “leadership transition” involves coordinated handovers of power involving all three parts of the political system.

The Party

By “the Party,” I’m of course referring to the Communist Party of China (CPC, also known as the Chinese Communist Party or CCP), the political organization founded in 1921 which, under Mao Zedong, fought a revolutionary war that ultimately brought it to power in 1949.  It is a Leninist party, which means that unlike most Western political parties, it is a tightly-organized, hierarchical organization similar to a military unit or religious order.  In the United States, there is no such thing as being a “member” of the Republican or Democratic Party — the closest thing would be to register to vote in either party’s primary.  Republican or Democratic “committees,” on either the local or national level, are really just funding and support co-ops for helping candidates; they are in no position to issue orders to voters, activists, candidates, or elected officials.  Joining the Communist Party of China, in contrast, is a formal and highly selective process that takes several years to complete.  Once initiated, a member must obey Party directives and take on whatever task (including official positions) the Party assigns.  If they misbehave, or even break a law, they will be detained, investigated, and punished by the Party, not the police — only after being expelled from the Party will they be turned over to the country’s regular legal system for prosecution.

The best way to think of the Party is to imagine the human resources department of a huge multinational corporation — except that in this case, this HR department is so powerful it gets to appoint everyone from the Board and the CEO to the lowliest janitor, so it effectively calls the shots.  In China, every government ministry, every military unit, every state-owned company — and in many cases private companies as well — has a Party committee that decides all major personnel issues and, in doing so, essentially acts as the power behind the throne.  Now sometimes the boss of the more visible entity is also head of the Party unit, which means the formal boss actually does call the shots.  But if the two roles are split — as they are, for instance, in every province — you can bet that the Party chief is the one holding most of the real power.

The Party’s 78 million members (a little over 5% of China’s total population) are essentially a pool of pre-screened candidates who can be slotted into whatever official role the Party leadership decides — with the understanding, of course, that their primary loyalty remains to the Party that put them there.  Directives from Party superiors — on who to assign or promote, or what policies to pursue– are ultimately far more important than instructions received from more formal channels like ministries, courts, or corporate boards.

Every five years, the Party holds a National Congress, which since 1969 always takes place in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square.  The last Congress, the 17th, was held in October 2007.  In theory, the 2,000 or so delegates are elected by the grassroots Party membership; in reality, the elections are organized in such a way as to ensure a highly controlled outcome.  The National Party Congress serves two main purposes.  First, it is the main venue where senior Party leaders announce major new directions or adjustments in Party ideology, such as Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” theory or Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Development Concept.”  Second, its delegates “elect” the Party’s Central Committee, whose members have already been pre-selected from on high.

The Central Committee is the Party’s core leadership, the top 200 or so “movers and shakers” who wield real power.  They include the top officials in the Party itself, most (but not all) government ministers and major agency heads, the most senior military generals, several provincial governors and Party chiefs, and the CEOs from a handful of the most powerful state-owned enterprises.  They are China’s “College of Cardinals” who appoint the 25-man Politburo, which is then narrowed even further into a 5 to 9-man Politburo Standing Committee that really runs the Party.  During the five-year period between National Party Congresses, the Central Committee also meets in “plenary sessions” in order to ratify important policy or leadership changes.  Although these decisions are often dictated from the top down, Central Committee members do hold real power and influence, and the behind-the-scenes political jockeying can be intense and plays at least some role in shaping the outcomes.

The nine men (and they have always all been men) on the Politburo Standing Committee are actually ranked in order of primacy, from #1 to #9.  Regardless of what other formal offices they do or do not hold, they are the real “top dogs” who make the important decisions in China’s political system.  For instance, Li Changchun, ranked #5, currently holds no government post besides a rather lowly position as a mere member of the National People’s Congress.  In fact, he is the Party’s propaganda chief, in charge of all media and internet censorship, who as Forbes puts it, “controls what 1.3 billion Chinese see, hear, and speak.”  Zhou Yongkang, ranked #9, is also “just” an NPC member, but in reality controls China’s internal security forces.

The #1 spot on the Politburo and its Standing Committee belongs to the General Secretary of the Central Committee.  Hu Jintao was appointed to this position at 16th National Party Congress in November 2002, and was reappointed at the 17th Congress in October 2007.  This, in effect, makes him the most powerful man in China.  Hu is the head of the Party, which controls the Army and the State, although as we shall see, he also has concurrent positions that give him more direct control of both.

It is presumed that Hu will step down as General Secretary at the next National Party Congress in the Fall of 2012, in keeping with a new “tradition” limiting the top ruler to two consecutive five-year terms.  The man who is expected to replace him, at that time, is Xi Jinping.  Within the Party, Xi currently serves as the 6th-ranked member of the Politburo Standing Committee (just below Li Changchun).  For the last five years, he has run the Party’s Secretariate, the Party’s top administrative bureaucracy that includes the crucial Central Organization Department which controls all personnel assignments within the Party (and therefore the senior levels of both the Army and the State).  At that same time, Xi was also appointed as Principal of the Central Party School, China’s equivalent of the Kennedy School where senior Party officials receive training.  It’s no coincidence that Hu Jintao held the same two positions in the years leading up to his own appointment to the top Party post.  Both positions give Xi Jinping a strong power base he can use to place his supporters in key positions and cement his claim as heir-apparent.

China’s current Premier, Wen Jiabao, also ranks #3 in the Party leadership on the Politburo Standing Committee.  Whoever is tapped to replace him as Premier — the expected candidate is Li Keqiang, now ranked #7 (right below Xi) on the Standing Committee — would almost certainly move up when the new ranking is announced in Fall 2012.

Since the late 1990s, a semi-official mandatory retirement age of 68 has applied to all Politburo members.  If that rule is applied in 2012 (and there is no reason to expect that it won’t), all seven members of the current Politburo Standing Committee besides Xi and Li (including Hu and Wen) will retire, and be replaced by new appointees.  Of the 16 “junior” Politburo members most likely to move up and replace them, only nine will be young enough to stay on — significantly narrowing the list of likely contenders to fill the seven top slots that will open.   That list that includes names like Wang Qishan and Bo Xilai, who I’ll have more to say about later.

I’ll also talk more about the personalities and politics of Hu, Wen, Xi, and Li, and what kind of changes the transition may bring.  But first we need to look at the other two elements of China’s power structure, the Army and the State, and how they fit into the story.

The Army

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was founded in 1927 as the military arm of the Communist Party (which itself was founded only six years earlier).  That’s more than two decades before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.  So the Army actually came into existence before the State, and owes its primary loyalty to the Party.  One of the bedrock principles of Communist rule in China was laid down by Mao when he said “the Party controls the gun.”

China’s Ministry of National Defense does not exercise command control over the PLA (which includes, by the way, not only China’s army, but also its navy, air force, and missile forces).  The Ministry, which is part of the State, only serves as a liaison between the PLA and foreign militaries.  Command and control of China’s military is exercised by the Party’s Central Military Commission (CMC), an highly secretive 11-man body theoretically elected by the Party’s Central Committee but in fact closely controlled by the Politburo Standing Committee.  (To add some confusion, there is also a State entity called the Central Military Commission comprised of the exact same members, but the Party CMC is the one that holds and exercises the real power).

The Party CMC directly controls the appointment of senior military officers, the deployment of units, and spending on arms and equipment.  In addition to the PLA, it also shares command of the People’s Armed Police (PAP), China’s main internal security force, with the (State) Ministry of Public Security.

Most of the 11-member CMC is composed of top generals commanding large components of the PLA, much like the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Despite the limited role of the Ministry of National Defense, the current Minister, General Liang Guanglie, is a member of the CMC, in his capacity as a senior general and Party member.  Needless to say, all the other generals serving on the CMC are also Party members.  Through its General Political Department (whose director, General Li Jinai is also a CMC member), the PLA maintains a network of political commissars whose job is to ensure the Party loyalty of each and every military unit, working alongside unit military commanders.

Since September 2004, Hu Jintao has served as Chairman of the CMC, the commander-in-chief of China’s military.  In a sense, it is the natural corollary to his role as General Secretary of the Party.  However, it’s worth noting that his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, hung to the post of CMC Chairman for nearly two years after he stepped down as General Secretary.  Some Western observers suspected that Jiang intended to imitate Deng Xiaoping, who used his position as CMC Chairman to wield power from behind the scenes as China’s “paramount leader” throughout the 1980s, long after he had stepped down from his more formal roles.  There was talk of serious friction between Hu and Jiang, which was only defused when Jiang finally stepped aside in 2004.

That’s one of the reasons why observers did a double-take when the CPC Central Committee plenum in 2008 did not appoint Xi Jinping (Hu’s presumed successor) as one of three CMC Vice Chairmen, as it was widely expected to do.  Was Hu trying to pull a Jiang, and planning to hold onto power through the CMC after his “term” as leader expired?  Or was he trying to position a rival candidate — perhaps his protégé Li Keqiang — as his successor?  Such speculation entertained China watchers for a while, but fizzled when Xi was appointed — apparently without any controversy — the very next year.  The move, last October, makes Xi the only civilian on the CMC besides Hu, and suggests that he is on track to inherit all, not just some, of Hu’s powers as “paramount leader.”

One final observation is worth making.  In the past, many members of the Party Politburo were PLA generals.  That’s largely because they came from a generation that fought in the Revolution.  Even Deng Xiaoping was a PLA veteran who served as a senior political commissar in some of the most important battles of the Revolution.  Only two of the full 25-member Politburo are serving PLA generals.  Not one of the nine members of the current Politburo Standing Committee ever performed significant service in the military (When Hu was first appointed to the CMC, an official bio was released indicating that he had served in various military positions as a political commissar, which nobody had previously been aware of; the same thing happened, just recently, with Xi.  It’s doubtful, however, whether these were ever anything more than nominal positions to bolster their resumes).

Although a handful of senior Party leaders are the children of top PLA generals, the eclipse of the PLA’s direct presence in higher Party leadership circles raises questions, among some observers, about how strong and deep of a connection more recent generations of Chinese leaders have with the military.  The question is heightened by the evident frustration felt by at least some PLA generals at Hu Jintao’s more conciliatory policy towards Taiwan.  Some speculate that leaders like Hu, who have weaker personal ties to the military, have compensated by granting the PLA more generous funding and a somewhat longer leash in pursuing its own agenda.  This claim, however, remains highly speculative.

The State

Last and — oddly enough — least, we come to China’s government.

In theory, the Chinese State is constructed around the National People’s Congress (NPC) which meets every year in March.  In truth, this 3,000 or so delegate body — of which roughly 2/3 are Communist Party members — simply ratifies both policy and personnel decisions already made by the Party and its Politburo.  At nearly the same time the NPC takes place, Beijing also hosts the annual Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), an advisory gathering of prominent people from all walks of Chinese life, many of them non-Party members.  Together, they are referred to as the “two meetings.”  In recent years, due to the rising impact of mass media, the “two meetings,” despite their lack of any real power, have become a high-profile platform for airing issues of public concern and shaping public opinion.  In this sense, they’ve come to serve much the same function as national political conventions now do as part of the modern U.S. presidential campaign: to communicate rather than actually decide.

Every five years, immediately (and not coincidentally) following each National Party Congress, the National People’s Congress “elects” a President (actually called zhuxi, or “chairman,” in Chinese) to the largely ceremonial role of China’s Head of State.  Ever since 1993, when Jiang Zemin became President, the sole candidate for the job has always been the General Secretary of the Communist Party.  So soon after Hu Jintao took over the #1 Party spot in October 2002, he was elected President at the next NPC meeting in March 2003.  The President is limited to two consecutive five-year terms.  The expectation is that after Xi Jinping succeeds Hu as Party chief in Fall 2012, he will subsequently be elected President by the next NPC in March 2013.  In the meantime, Xi currently serves as Vice President.

The President appoints, and the NPC officially “confirms,” the State Council — essentially, China’s cabinet of ministers — including the head of that cabinet, the Premier, assisted by several Vice Premiers.  Of course since the President is also the head of the Party, he really does get to select who gets these positions.

The State Council and its component ministries are synonymous with China’s Central Government.  The Premier is the Head of Government, China’s equivalent of a Prime Minister.  Essentially, the role of the Central Government is to turn the political directives and priorities of the Party into concrete policies and regulations, and to administer them.   The Premier is therefore responsible for the execution of various policy goals such as stable economic growth, protecting the environment, and enforcing the one-child policy.  In effect, the Premier is the wonk-in-chief, and is assisted in this role by a variety of quasi-official scholarly think-tanks that advise the State Council.  Many of China’s most important bureaucratic agencies, such as the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC, China’s central economic planning agency), the People’s Bank of China (PBOC, the country’s central bank), the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC, which owns China’s largest SOEs) and the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) report directly to the State Council.

From the State Council on down, the Central Government is staffed by a national civil service.  The Premier himself is considered a Level 1 civil servant, the Vice Premiers are Level 2, ministers Level 3, and so on.  However, for each unit or level of bureaucracy, including the State Council itself, there exists a shadow Party committee that provides  “guidance” and determines all key personnel decisions.  It should be no surprise, then, that the Premier also happens to be the Party Secretary of the State Council party committee.  It is this key Party position that corresponds to the #3 slot on the Politburo Standing Committee, which is his real source of power.

(The shadow system of Party committees also helps explain why the Party leadership can be so certain all the right people will be appointed to office.  The #2 man on the Politburo Standing Committee, Wu Bangguo, is the head of the NPC’s Party committee.  In that capacity, he can make sure the Party’s #1 man is elected President, and that all of his State Council appointments are approved, simply by issuing Party orders to the NPC delegates under his command).

The current Premier is Wen Jiabao, who was appointed by Hu Jintao in March 2003, subsequent to his installation as the head of the State Council Party committee and #3 spot on the Politburo Standing Committee in October 2002.  In effect, his official promotion was merely a reflection of his Party promotion a few months earlier.  Like the President, the Premier is limited to two consecutive five-year terms.  Most people expect that when Xi Jinping is elected President in March 2013, he will appoint Li Keqiang Premier.  Li has been serving as the first-ranked Vice Premier, in charge of economic matters, since the last round of appointments in March 2008.  He is also, not coincidentally, the #2 man (deputy secretary) on the State Council Party committee.  Of course, we will know in advance whether Li will take over as Premier in 2013, depending on whether he gets promoted to Wen’s Party positions in October 2012.

Now that we have an overview of the tripartite structure of China’s political system — Party, Army, State — and the positions of power in each, we can get a clearer idea of the leadership transition about to take place.

If everything goes as expected, Xi Jinping will, in a sequence of steps, succeed Hu Jintao in the top leadership position in the Party, the Army, and the State.  In October 2012, when the 18th National Party Congress meets, Xi will become the Secretary General of the Communist Party and the #1 man on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee.  It is also likely that, at that time, he will also be promoted from Vice-Chairman to Chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission (CMC), making him the commander-in-chief of China’s military.  Then in March 2013, when the National People’s Congress meets, he will be “elected” to the office of President, China’s Head of State, where he will proceed to appoint the Premier and all other ministers in the Central Government.

By the end of the National Party Congress in October 2012, we will already know who Xi will appoint as Premier that next March, because that person (most likely Li Keqiang) will have been promoted to replace Wen as Party Secretary of the State Council Party committee and #3 man on the Politburo Standing Committee.  It is worth noting that China’s current Premier does not have any seat on the Central Military Commission.  He holds a key position in the Party and State leaderships, but not the Army.

Other than Xi and Li, the rest of the 9-member Politburo Standing Committee is expected to see a complete turnover, with a new, younger generation taking over.  The prime candidates to fill these seven top spots are the nine out of 16 “junior” Politburo members who will be young enough to avoid retirement, although it is entirely possible that other contenders are waiting in the wings.  It’s quite likely that most of the decisions have already been made within the Party, and are only waiting to be made public.  But as we shall see, some political jockeying may still be playing out.

Xi will replace Hu Wen? 

So far, I’ve focused primarily on the institutional dynamics of China’s power transition.  That’s important, because ever since Deng handed thing over to Jiang in the mid-90s, power has become far more institutionalized in China than it was, say, under the rather arbitrary, dictatorial rule of Mao.  Nevertheless, the other side of the equation — the personalities and politics of the leaders themselves — remains of great interest, especially in evaluating what China’s leadership transition will mean for the future.

This aspect, however, can be quite frustrating to get a handle on, for several reasons.  First, the Party remains quite protective of the private lives of its leaders.  The official biographies released by the Party generally portray them as faceless functionaries and dutiful workaholics.  We are told next to nothing about their family life, political or professional reputation, or formative life experiences, except by rumor.   Second, contests over policy or among political rivals in the Party take place almost entirely behind closed doors, and are never revealed to the public.  We can only guess, from public hints and private conversations, where the fault lines might be; to the ouside world, the Party presents a solid, disciplined, utterly homogenous front.  Third, any Party member who is in line for promotion — particularly a top promotion — is well advised to keep his cards close to his vest.  If Xi or Li are harboring any radical ideas or planning any bold changes in direction, they’re not gong to tell us about it.

Keeping all of these caveats in mind, I’ll briefly try to outline what we do know about the main figures who can be expected to loom large in China’s upcoming leadership transition:

Hu Jintao, age 68, was trained, like many leaders of his generation and the one that preceded him, as a civil engineer.  His main power base is the Communist Youth League (CYL), which he led as First Secretary in 1984-85.  As he rose up the Party ladder, he gained a reputation for being honest, obedient, and tight-lipped, rarely offering his own views in public, prefering to quietly build coalitions behind the scenes.  Some might fault him for lacking personal color and charisma; he certainly can seem uncomfortably formal and stiff when speaking in public.  Hu was tapped as Jiang’s successor by Deng Xiaoping, and was only reluctantly accepted by Jiang.  As a result, he spent most of his first five-year term unseating Jiang’s proteges from key positions and replacing them with his own (nevertheless, at least three members of the current Politburo Standing Committee — Wu Bangguo (#2), Jia Qinlin (#4), and Li Changchun (#5), the top men besides Wen — were originally considered Jiang loyalists, which gives some idea of the difficulty Hu had in asserting control).  Ever since taking over the top position, Hu’s central theme has been to shift the emphasis of economic development away from breakneck growth towards a more even distribution of benefits among regions and social classes (an approach recently dubbed “inclusive growth”), in order to head off social and political unrest (ensure a “harmonious society”).  The latest Five Year Plan, ratified by the NPC earlier this month, was the very first to fully reflect these priorities.

Wen Jiabao, also age 68, is a geologist by background, and was serving as Vice Minister in this field when he caught the eye of then-General Secretary Hu Yaobang in the 1980s.   Wen’s competence and mastery of detail won him the support of powerful mentors, including HYB and Premier Zhu Rongji.  But it’s been his “common touch” that has defined Wen’s reputation since taking over as Premier.  Unlike Hu Jintao, and many other Chinese officials for that matter, Wen seems genuinely at ease when talking with everyday citizens, a fact that has earned him great popularity, as well as the nickname “Grandpa Wen.”  Occasionally Wen’s popularity seems to have rubbed his colleagues the wrong way — particularly in the aftermath of the Sichuan Earthquake, when his on-the-scene relief efforts, bullhorn in hand, left President Hu feeling upstaged — but they are also keenly aware of its usefulness. [Wen’s wife is a very savvy businesswoman who reportedly has made a fortune in the diamond trade.  She never appears with him in public, and the topic is considered taboo, for fear it would damage Wen’s populist credentials].

Wen’s influence over policy is less clear, despite his ostensible role as China’s top policymaker.  On economic matters, his philosophy is ambiguous.  On some occasions, he appears to invoke the cause of market reform by noting “serious imbalances” in the Chinese economy.  On others, he has lauded China’s state-heavy system of “market socialism” for giving the government direct control over the economy.  Over the past year, Wen provoked a great deal of comment and speculation when he spoke, on several occasions, of the need for greater political reform in China.  Some have even postulated an internal rift within the Party, with Wen leading a democratic reform camp against hardliners led by Wu Bangguo and Zhou Yongkang (a theory that gained momentum when Wu seemed to contradict Wen’s softer line in their speeches at this year’s NPC).  Nevertheless, Wen has never clarified what he actually means by “political reform,” and the practical difference between Wen and the others’ positions may be far less than imagined.

In any event, given that they have little more than a year left in their terms, neither Hu nor Wen are likely to exert a dominant influence over the Party’s future for very much longer.

Xi Jinping is expected to replace Hu as China’s paramount leader.  Xi, age 57, is a so-called “princeling,” the child of a prominent Party official.  His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a leading Communist revolutionary who served as Deputy Prime Minister in the early 1960s before being purged by Mao in the Cultural Revolution.  After he was rehabilitated by Deng Xiaopeng, the elder Xi served as governor of Guangdong, where he proposed and implemented China’s first “special economic zone” in Shenzhen and emerged as a vigorous advocate of market reform.  He once told Deng that “We need to reform China and implement this economic zone even if it means that we have to pave a bloody road ahead and I am to be responsible for it.”  Xi Zhongxun later publicly condemned the violent crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

His father’s legacy would seem to place Xi Jinping firmly in the camp of political and economic reform.  However, some friends have suggested that the younger Xi endured his family’s humiliation during the Cultural Revolution by becoming “redder than red” — a devoted Party loyalist.  (Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once described Xi as “a thoughtful man who has gone through many trials and tributions,” even comparing him to Nelson Mandela).  An engineer and Tsinghua graduate like Hu, Xi has learned — throughout steady rise up the ladder, including key provincial posting to the prosperous coastal provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai — to keep his cards close to his vest.  By and large, he has stayed away from scandal or controversy, focusing on Party-approved campaigns to combat corruption.   As a result, Xi’s inner mind, and the priorities he would pursue once in power, remain largely a mystery, at least to outsiders.

Xi is married to one of China’s most famous singers, Peng Liyuan, making her an unusually visible First Lady.  Their daughter is currently enrolled at Harvard under a pseudonym.

Li Keqiang, age 55, is expected to succeed Wen as Premier, China’s top policymaker and Xi’s #2.  He comes from a far more humble background than Xi — his father was a local official in the poor, rural province of Anhui — but earned a law degree from Peking University, as well as a PhD in economics.  In the process, he rose to a top leadership position in the Communist Youth League, Hu Jintao’s main power base, where he became a key protégé of Hu.  In 1998, Li became China’s youngest-ever governor when he was appointed to run the rural, heavily-populated province of Henan.  His tenure there was marred by several damaging incidents, including a horrendous scandal involving the spread of AIDS through carelessly contaminated blood, which tagged him with a reputation for “bad luck.”  His success at improving Henan’s economy, however — along with Hu’s patronage — earned him a promotion to Party Secretary in Liaoning, where he championed ambitious plans to revive the province’s struggling rust-belt economy.

There is a widespread belief that Li was Hu’s preferred pick as successor, but that he lost out to Xi in the ensuing power struggle.  Even after Li became Deputy Premier, and Wen’s presumed successor, speculation still raged that rivals such as Wang Qishan and Bo Xilai (see below) were angling to push him aside and claim the prize for themselves.  Critics covertly drew attention to Li’s past troubles in Henan and the shadow of “bad luck” hanging over his reputation.  However, a series of successful foreign trips, in which Li performed well, appears to have bolstered his position and cleared the path for him becoming China’s next premier.

Wang Qishan is currently a member of the full Poliburo (but not the Standing Committee) and serves under Wen as Vice Premier in charge of economics and finance.  A history student in college, Wang — somewhat in contrast to Li — has a reputation as a real “can-do” guy.  In the 1990s, as president of China Construction Bank (CCB) and deputy governor of the nation’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), he helped reorganize China’s banks to cope with a major bad debt crisis.  After Beijing’s mayor screwed up the city’s response to the SARS epidemic in 2003, Wang was tapped to replace him and clean up the mess.  He went on to manage the city’s highly successful 2008 Olympics.  Wang currently serves as President Hu’s special envoy to the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), where he has received kudos from foreign counterparts like US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who called Wang “decisive and inquisitive” with “a wicked sense of humor.”  Given Wang’s stellar track record, it’s no wonder that many saw him — and many believe he saw himself — as a strong candidate to succeed Wen as Premier, even after Li was designated the heir-apparent.  One strike against him, however, was his age:  now 62, Wang would only be able to serve a single five-year term before reaching the mandatory retirement age.  While he probably won’t win the #2 spot, it’s likely that Wang will be a highly influential player on the new 9-man inner circle for the next several years.

Bo Xilai is emerging as the big wildcard in the upcoming leadership transition.  Like Xi, Bo — now serving as the Party secretary of Chongqing — is a “princeling,” but Bo is considered a “crown prince among princelings.”  His father, Bo Yibo, was a Long March veteran who later opposed Mao over the Great Leap Forward; during the Cultural Revolution, the elder Bo was tortured and his wife (Bo Xilai’s mother) was beaten to death.  Bo Yibo later emerged as one of the “Eight Immortals,” the seniormost PLA generals who were instrumental in backing Deng Xiaoping.  In contrast to Xi’s father, Bo’s father was one of the key hardliners behind the imposition of martial law in 1989.

Handsome, articulate, and media-savvy, Bo Xilai is sometimes referred to as China’s Kennedy.  As mayor of Dalian in the 1990s, Bo was credited with managing a remarkable renaissance of the then-decaying port city.  In 2003, Bo — who graduated in history from Peking University, and is married to a prominent lawyer — took over as Minister of Commerce, where he dazzled his foreign counterparts.  Although Bo, now age 61 and a member of the full Politburo, has had an impressive and high-profile career, he so far has been unable to break into to the real inner circle of power — possibly due, in part, to resentment over his charismatic personal style and his willingness to court the media and the public.  Admiring profiles of him in the Western press have certainly not won him any friends among China’s more conservative powerbrokers.

When Bo was sent to Chongqing, an urban province of 31 million, as Party boss in 2007, it was seen as his “make it or break it” moment.  There’s no doubt he has used it to make an impression.  Whether it’s his ruthless crackdown on the city’s mafia (in which a few defense lawyers were thrown in jail for good measure) or his ambitious (and costly) plans to build huge swaths of subsidized housing, Bo has been making news.  He has also perplexed Western admirers with a populist campaign aimed at reviving the spirit (if not the chaos) of the Cultural Revolution, including “red songs” and “red text messages” praising Chairman Mao — a rather odd, and some say cynical, maneuver given his tragic family history.  Nobody knows quite what it all adds up to, or how Bo far will run with it, but he’s made himself impossible to ignore.  Last December, Xi Jinping paid a visit to Chongqing and publicly praised Bo’s neo-Maoist movement.

It may be that Bo’s recent activities, and antics, have earned him a place on the 9-man Standing Committee — if only to make sure this volatile politician is, as we used to say in the Army, “inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside pissing in.”  If so — and such a conclusion is far from certain — he will be one of the most interesting people to watch in the next few years.

Obviously there are many other personalities involved in the upcoming transition, even if we look no lower than the possible candidates to fill the top nine slots on the Standing Committee.  But for simplicity’s sake, it’s best to focus on these six.  I’ll only make one further, broader observation.   The 2012-13 transition represents a handoff from the so-called “4th generation” to the “5th”.  The first two generations, led by Mao and Deng, were dominated by the generals and cadres who fought in the Communist revolution.  The next two, led by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, were dominated by engineers, who rose to power under Soviet-style central planning but adapted, more or less readily, to market reform as a path to “modernize” China.  Out of the current 9-man Standing Committee, seven are engineers, one (Wen) is a geologist, and only one (Li) is a lawyer/economist.  While the next President, Xi Jinping, is an engineer, most of the 5th generation expected to serve immediately under him studied law, economics, or history — disciplines that may offer a different perspective on the challenges China faces.

Virtually all of the new generation of leaders, however, completed their studies in China, unlike their children (typified by Xi’s daughter at Harvard, or Bo Xilai’s son at Oxford) who in many cases have studied and even worked or taught abroad.  I’ve been told, by several of my Tsinghua students, that studying abroad — while highly desirable from a money-making perspective — is still regarded as a career-killer for anyone hoping to rise within the Party.  It will be interesting to see, after a new generation of “princelings” returns to China with Western diplomas in hand, whether this will continue to hold true, and what new perspectives these returnees will bring to Chinese politics.

66 Comments leave one →
  1. Dennis permalink
    May 9, 2011 3:43 am

    Wouldnt your students, who are studying at home, have a big incentive to play down kids with foreign credentials?

  2. May 9, 2011 7:00 am

    Thank you, Patrick, for an extremely informative post.
    I now have a much greater understanding of how the whole thing hangs together.

  3. May 9, 2011 9:03 am

    Patrick, congratulations and thanks for an excellent and informative post.

  4. Sarah permalink
    May 9, 2011 4:16 pm

    What a great post – I learned so much! This was fantastic!

  5. May 9, 2011 10:32 pm


    I do Zhongnanhai-nology (I don’t think that’s a proper word, yet) for a living. This post was accessible and informative. Well done!

  6. blackwatertown permalink
    May 10, 2011 1:50 am

    Most impressive.

  7. May 10, 2011 4:54 am

    Incredible article Patrick!

    In a recent WSJ editorial, Wang Den, a leader of the 1989 Tainanmen Square uprising and author of 17 books, opined on the future of China’s leadership. The harsh conditions the derisively called “princelings” and their family experienced has hardened them, while their familial lineage has given then a sense of entitlement. Criticism from the West will be less tolerated, and at home, the crackdown on Artist Ai Weiwei is a tell on what’s to come, says Wang. The arrest “was not a careless mistake on the part of junior officials. On the contrary, it was ordered at the highest levels of power, and it suggests a dark era in China’s political climate has begun.”

    If the new leadership does have their way, political and economic freedom could take a backseat to nationalism and military flexing, particularly in the wake of an economic crises as leadership looks to deflect attention in “rally around the flag” political maneuver. This has ramifications for companies that do business there, who already suffer home grown favoritism. Den says the crackdown on calls for democracy may backfire, as the people do not have a positive view on Princelings as is, possibly creating an opening for members of Tuuanpi, or the Communist Youth League and their populist thinking.

    • Dennis permalink
      May 10, 2011 9:06 am

      Bo Xilai is a princeling and a populist…

      • ryan permalink
        May 19, 2011 5:53 pm

        well he’s an opportunist. most chinese people don’t like his attempt of picking up Mao’s legacy from the cultural revolution. he’s not going anywhere in a real election but there’s no such thing as ‘real election’ in china….so, hard to say

    • Zhe permalink
      June 7, 2011 7:47 am

      Well, Wang Dan’s focus is always on democracy. He and other people thought the CPC will collapse very soon after 1989 but somehow actual world have not followed them expectation. So he became a passimist.

      His comment “and it suggests a dark era in China’s political climate has begun” makes me laugh.

      The fact is that there are hundreds of democratic advocators and critics in China right now. Most of them are still talking on their blogs and chinese version of twitter. Ai Weiwei was just one of the extremists among them. And if the charge of illigal tax evasion of more than 3 million dollars is true, he cannot blame anyone and his arrest will surely not prove that ” a dark era in China’s political climate has begun”. But foreign media seems always ignoring this charge.

      After seeing what happened in russia, most Chinese don’t really appreciate the idea of “overnight delivery of democracy”. Therefore, although many people don’t like CPC, most of us don’t want to see the current government collapse in short time, while Ai Weiwei and some other extremists are advocating it. There are many more activists who is fighting their way to democracy through reformation in China now than those extremists. And these activist are making progress. It is really a pity that foreign medium seems more interested in the extremists than those activist who are making actual impacts.

      • Uwant Tono permalink
        June 15, 2011 1:25 am

        Zhe, your comments are informative and constructive although I don’t agree with them. Political freedoms (often) lag behind economic and social freedoms and I don’t see China being an exception to this norm. That is why the CPC is very worried about creative and outspoken people like Ai Weiwei, who are the new middle class of China; they are the natural outgrowth of a successful and growing economy, an irreversible trend that the CPC will not be able to forever contain or surpress

      • Uwant Tono permalink
        June 20, 2011 2:30 pm

        Why was my previous post censored? Too close to the bone perhaps? Free speech is not for the squeamish!

      • prchovanec permalink*
        June 25, 2011 7:28 am

        Your comments were not censored, I was just traveling and had not had the chance to approve them yet. Relax.

  8. Eskil permalink
    May 10, 2011 10:59 pm

    Thanks for a very comprehensive introduction! In danger of sounding snotty and annoying I still have to point out how confusing it makes me that the party has held meetings in the great hall of people since 1949 even though it was not finished until 1959. I am sure it was just a typo though.

    • prchovanec permalink*
      May 10, 2011 11:18 pm

      Good point. There were actually only two Party Congresses in the two decades immediately following the revolution. The 8th Party Congress took place in September 1956 in Beijing, but you’re right, could not have occurred in the Great Hall of the People since that building was not completed until three years later. The next Party Congress, the 9th, didn’t take place until April 1969, which would have been the first time the Great Hall hosted the event. I’ve updated my post accordingly.

      • May 11, 2011 9:17 am

        I don’t know where in Beijing the 8th Congress was held, but the Commemorative stamps that were issued at the time feature illustrations of Tiananmen Square. Presumably the meeting was held somewhere nearby.

  9. Katie Hill permalink
    May 10, 2011 11:42 pm

    Very interesting indeed.

  10. May 12, 2011 7:04 pm

    Thx for ur comments~

    Continue pay attention for your blog since now.

    best regards.

  11. May 13, 2011 12:56 am

    “The expectation is that after Xi Jinping succeeds Hu as Party chief in Fall 2012, he will subsequently be elected President by the next NPC in March 2013. In the meantime, Xi currently serves as Vice President”, Who will be the president in those months? Still Hu Jintao?

    • prchovanec permalink*
      May 13, 2011 4:04 am

      Yes, Hu Jintao’s second 5-year term as President runs from March 2008 to March 2013.

  12. Prince Wang permalink
    May 13, 2011 6:13 pm

    Well read. But there is one factual-and amaeturish-error. Don’t take Li Keqiang’s “PhD in economics” seriously. Otherwise why don’t you mention the doctorate in law of Xi Jinping?

  13. May 17, 2011 3:33 pm

    I hope you’re utterly proud of this: it’s excellent.

  14. Red permalink
    May 18, 2011 9:42 am

    As a Chinese, I must say it is the best introduction of Chinese political structure wrote by foreigners I have ever seen.

  15. lorelei2001 permalink
    May 19, 2011 3:20 am

    Thanks for this great post. As a former Tsinghua students who is now studying in the U.S. I finally understand why I can’t be a member of The Central Committee,hahaha

  16. ryan permalink
    May 19, 2011 5:46 pm

    good job! very informative and systematic. thank you.

    it’s so ironic that the chinese people can only get the whole picture of this matter from a foreigner’s post, still anything about this post is banned in chinese websites. I do wish things’re gonna be different after the upcoming transition.

  17. BBB permalink
    May 19, 2011 6:00 pm

    Great post; one minor correction. The “Eight Immortals” were not all PLA generals, as you say. Most were not, and Bo Yibo, Bo Xilai’s father, himself was not a general, no more than Deng Xiaoping was. He had close ties to the military from the revolutionary era, but was part of the party apparatus that controlled the military, not the military. Most people might consider Wang Zhen as one of the “Eight”; he was indeed a miliary man, but he was the exception.

  18. May 24, 2011 9:11 am

    Excellent and informative article, provided excellent insight into China’s power players.

    Bo Xilai actions seem rather smart, he was born July 1949 making him 62 this year, still young and yet one of the only person’s to remain from the existing Politburo after the shuffle. He see’s that his history and actions have made him unpopular amongst the elites of the Politburo so he has changed gears and went hard Red. He’s someone to look out for…

  19. May 26, 2011 4:10 pm

    Great, great post. A wonderful sorting-out of the opaque nature of China’s central government. I also like the term one of the commenters coined- “Zhongnanhainology”. I tried to be a practitioner of that field myself, for awhile, before determining how utterly impossible it is, and how nearly any action can be posthumously excused or “predicted” based upon a reading of the top leader’s blurry biographies and their equally dull, opaque speeches.

    Just one thing I’d be certain of- China isn’t run by idiots, and never for one second believe anyone who tells you otherwise. If the actions of the central government seem nonsensical, 99% of the time it’s for one of two reasons:

    1. They’re not really in control of the situation.
    2. They’re deliberately trying to confuse their opponents.

    Never underestimate people who were read passages from Sunzi and the 36 stratagems as bedtime stories, and managed to scheme their way to the top of the world’s largest totalitarian empire. Never.

  20. Hyam Asher Bolande permalink
    May 26, 2011 6:44 pm

    Bravo, Patrick. Cogent, confident and concise.

    I was a wire-service correspondent in Beijing the late ’90s and covered the death of Deng Xiaoping and the incredibly opaque Jiang Zemin/Zhu Rongji era. Writing succinct “backgrounder” paragraphs for the uninitiated was always the hardest part of the job.

    This post is an achievement and could serve as a reference touchstone for many.

    Well done, and I hope we have the chance to meet sometime soon.

  21. Live in China Mainland permalink
    May 31, 2011 3:27 pm

    This post is not banned in Chinese website, I can access it. But the Chinese version is banned totally. And Patrick I have seen you in the CCTV-9’s news. 🙂

  22. June 6, 2011 12:56 pm

    Just amazing. A Must read for anyone working in China.

  23. January 17, 2012 3:02 am

    If this organization produces or consisting of great leaders, I do believe that its purposes is for the betterment of the country. Thanks for this post!

  24. Ian permalink
    January 24, 2012 4:22 pm

    Excellent! I will be recommending this post as a first rate primer on Chinese political landscape. This combines elements of a good civics lesson along with concise profiles of the key players. This is the first post I have read by this author — it won’t be the last!

  25. February 10, 2012 2:48 am

    Patrick – you are, indeed, a scholar. I’ve cited you on my website – I hope it meets with your approval.

    • March 17, 2012 4:25 am

      Patrick – Since my comment on Feb 10, I’ve had to move my website to That site now also includes a blog.

  26. February 15, 2012 4:28 am

    And now given the recent unfolding of events, what do you think of Bo’s future prospects? Actually, what do you think of the entire epsiode with Wang’s visit to the US consulate?

  27. March 16, 2012 3:36 am

    I have to admit, even for Chinese, the political system of China is confusing


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