Looking East: Chinese Leadership Transition Part 1

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.


The outgoing 17th PBSC Standing Committee; Source: Internet/Xinhua

On November 1, 2012, the 17th Politburo of the Communist Party of China (CCP) will convene the final plenum (full meeting) of the 17th Central Committee of the CCP.  During this plenum, the agenda, political speeches, and key personnel decisions for the upcoming party congress will be finalized by the outgoing leadership seeking to cement its legacy and smoothly transfer power to China’s next generation of leaders.  On November 8, more than two thousand delegates from all over China will meet in Beijing for the Eighteenth Congress of the CCP to hear outgoing General Secretary Hu Jintao deliver his last keynote speech and formally elect a new central committee from the list of people approved and circulated by the previous committee.  About a week later, the new central committee will convene for the first time and elect its Politburo and the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC).  Later that day, seven (or nine) men will walk onto a stage in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.  Together, they will represent the Fifth Generation Leadership of the Communist Party of China that will rule the country for the next decade (with some reshuffling in five years).  Together, they will have to overcome entrenched political interests in China’s highly distorted and inefficient economy and address pervasive corruption and public distrust in government, initiating the next stage in China’s three decade long reform and opening up process.

This piece pools together analysis from China scholars at the Hoover Institute’s China Leadership Monitor, reports in mainstream media like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, as well as reports and rumors from Chinese language internet news sources, such as Duowei News. It will give you an overview of the potential new leaders of China, starting with the top four contenders who, according to various sources, are all but assured seats on the new PBSC.

For the latest speculation on candidates’ chances, check out Reuter’s “Exclusive: China power brokers agree on preferred leadership – sources

The article’s analysis matched predictions made by Duowei News  which came a few months earlier.


The Candidates 

Picture Source: China Daily

Xi Jinping (习近平): The Princeling Head-honcho-in-waiting

Born: 1953

Current position: PBSC member, Vice State President, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Dean of the Central Party School

Background: Princeling (son of Xi Zhongxun, reformist Vice Premier and party chief of Guangdong)

Likelihood for ascent: certain

Random fact: married to star folk singer Peng Liyuan

By now, the world should be at least somewhat well acquainted with the name of Xi Jinping, who, along with Vice Premier Li Keqiang, has been named in 2007 by the Party leadership to take over as the leader of the Fifth Generation Leadership.  Xi Jinping will become head of party, state, and military, making him “first among equals” in the new leadership and giving him first say in party ideology, internal affairs, foreign policy, and military affairs.  As a “princeling”, an offspring or family member of a former senior party member, Xi was chosen to lead because he is not controversial (in contrast to princeling Bo Xilai).  Xi’s background means he could either choose, as expected, to protect the interest of the existing party elite among whom he hails before all else, or instead use his extensive princeling political connections to embark on more ambitious projects to reform the party.

Xi’s experiences in the past five years have been focused on “party construction,” with a recent emphasis on “party purity” in the context of increasing corruption and spiritual pollution within the ranks of party cadres.  Some interpret this as a sign that Xi may try to tamp down the pervasiveness of corruption within the system when he takes over.

For an interesting take on Xi Jinping’s potential political leanings, see “Many Urge Next Leader of China to Liberalize.”



Picture Source: Wikipedia

Li Keqiang (李克): The Un-chosen one

Born: 1955

Current position: PBSC member, Vice Premier of the State Council (1 out of 4)

Background: Communist Youth League (Hu Jintao); served as party chief of populous interior province of Hunan provinces (Henan and Liaoning)

Likelihood for ascent: certain

It was rumored that General Secretary Hu Jintao wanted to make Li successor to the top job in 2007, but was forced to compromise on Xi.  As the new Premier of the State Council, Li will oversee China’s economy and vast state bureaucracy.  In the past five years, Li’s work has primarily been focused on building a new safety net for China’s rural and urban masses.  These projects include increasing rural healthcare and overall hospital reforms, building affordable housing in urban areas, and widening China’s social security network.  Li is expected to make these social policies a top priority for his government as China’s leadership begins to honor its promise to shift from emphasis on growth to social equality.  However, Li must overcome widespread disappointment over how little he, and current Premier Wen Jiabao, managed to achieve in the past five years.



Picture Source: BusinessInsider

Li Yuanchao (李源潮): The Organizational Czar

Born: 1950

Current position: Director of the CC Department of Organization

Background: Communist Youth League (Hu Jintao), minor princeling (father served senior position in Shanghai party committee); party chief of coastal Jiangsu province

Likelihood of ascent: mostly certain

Random fact: rumored to have originally been named “support Korea”, which has the same pronunciation as the characters for his current name (Yuanchao or “support Korea” was a common name for people born in the early 50s when China fought in the Korean War)

As Director of the CCP’s Central Organization Department, Yuanchao has overseen the vetting and promotion of all senior officials in China (including ministers, governors, provincial party secretaries, executives of state-owned companies, deans of major national universities) for the last five years.  Yuanchao will likely take over the daily running and maintaining of the party’s vast bureaucratic network as the leading secretary of the central committee’s Secretariat under Xi Jinping.  This means the outside world won’t be seeing much of him unless he also takes over as Vice President or some other more public role.



Picture Source: White House Photostream

Wang Qishan (王岐山): The “Firefighting” Finance Guy

Born: 1948

Current position: Vice Premier (4 out of 4)

Background: Princeling (son-in-law of conservative CCP elder Yao Yilin); appointed mayor of Beijing to handle the SARS crisis; has extensive experience in the banking sector

Likelihood of ascent: very likely

Known to be charismatic, Wang Qishan has been in charge of China’s famed trade sector and its more problematic financial sector in the past five years.  Wang has been repeatedly called on by senior leadership to handle crises (including China’s late 90s financial crisis and the SARS crisis), earning himself the nickname “firefighter”.  There were widespread rumors earlier this year that he might usurp Li Keqiang’s role as heir to Wen Jiabao, since Wang boasted a much more impressive list of accomplishments than Li (rapidly expanding foreign currency reserve versus growing income inequality).  The change did not occur, but the rumors demonstrated the shaky ground on which Li Keqiang was stood.  For more on the Li-Wang rivalry and its implications, see “As China Weighs Shifting Economic Policy, a Rivalry for Its Stewardship.”


With four out of seven slots filled, the three remaining seats of the PBSC will most likely to be filled by three of the following five people: Zhang Dejiang, Zhang Gaoli, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, and Wang Yang.  Stay tuned for Part II of this series for the profiles of the rest of the candidates.

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