Triumph of the elites. New leadership of China unveiled

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PAWE? BIE?KOWSKI, Asian Programme

After years of predictions and expectations, the names of people who are going to lead China for the next decade have all been made known. No major surprises, rather a reinforcement of the system and a showcase of personal influences. In the morning of 15 November 2012 seven members of the Communist Party of China’s Politburo’s Standing Committee (PBSC) marched out to meet the press, in an order corresponding to each other’s significance and position. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, as predicted, will lead the party and the state for the next decade. They were followed by vice-premier Zhang Dejiang, Shanghai party chief Yu Zhengsheng, propaganda boss Liu Yunshan, another vice-premier Wang Qishan and party boss from Tianjin Zhang Gaoli.

Overall Politburo’s Standing Committee’s size has been reduced from nine to seven members, which reflects downsizing of the Politburo as such. Whereas the names of those who eventually found themselves in the Standing Committee are not surprising, one should note the names of those who have not been included. These are specifically Wang Yang, party chief from Guangdong, Liu Yandong, who was supposed to become the first woman in PBSC and Li Yuanchao, head of an influential CPC organisation department. All of them have been known as protégés of outgoing Hu Jintao.

Continuation, factions and influence

86-years-old Jiang Zemin seems to have played a major role in deciding the outcome of the Congress. This has obviously to do with China’s unique leadership model, which relies on a principle of continuation. This principle, however, is never realised by a simple means of „one generation anointing the following one”. In China’s case, the current generation of leaders is composed of people supported either by their immediate predecessors, or the one but last generation of leaders, or both. Hu Jintao was anointed by late Deng Xiaoping, who was impressed by the former’s forceful handling of social unrest in Tibet. According to the same pattern, Hu’s predecessor – Jiang Zemin – made his choice in the personality of Xi Jinping. However, the power succession realised during the 18. Congress shows rather a continuing influence of Jiang. Overall figures confirm that. Five out of seven members of the PBSC are Jiang Zemin’s protégés, while only three can claim ties to Hu Jintao (with Yu Zhengsheng being considered a protégé of both Jiang and Hu). Allegiance to the infamous „Shanghai clique” (an informal „club” of businessmen and politicians that actually governs Shanghai since the years of Jiang Zemin’s time there as party secretary) also seems to have played some role in 2012 succession, as two new CC members (Xi Jinping, and Yu Zhengsheng) have direct links to the city. The coastal belt of China definitely enjoys power and splendor, as majority of PBSC members have their powerbases right there. A major issue, however, is the composition of the PBSC in terms of division on the camp of „princelings” (taizidang) – children of high-ranking party officials – and the camp of tuanpai, associated with Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League. Here, the ratio seems to be 4:2 for the princelings, with Zhang Gaoli associated with none of two. This shows how elitist Chinese politics tend to be, with power and privilege coming to a growing extent from upbringing, family ties and guanxi connections.

The 2012 leadership succession has been therefore really about the competition between two camps. First dimension is personal allegiance to either Jiang or Hu This one is followed by a corresponding association with a „populist” or „elitist” view on Chinese politics. An interaction between these two options constitutes what a leading expert on China’s political system, Cheng Li, calls „checks and balances” or „one party, two coalitions” setting. This, however, ought not to be mistaken with a 19th century Western style conservative-liberal opposition. As Radek Pyffel rightly argues, this dichotomy does not have much to do with Chinese reality, marked in any case by political scene dominated by one party only. Having taken that into consideration, one should not refer to China’s leadership succession in terms of who actually takes over. Names of individuals are not as important as groups and interests they represent. Gradually, having evolved from strong leaders such as Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping, through a hard but also somehow withdrawn Jiang Zemin, the People’s Republic moved towards a model marked by collective, consensual leadership. In times of crisis and uncertainty, another strong leader might a perhaps serve China well. But, as Shaun Breslin argues, the current political system in the country prevents that from happening. Anyway, has this system noted any change? Yes, markedly. Does that lead towards democracy? To a certain extent, yes. But definitely not towards a model known in the West.

Political reform? Yes, but „with Chinese characteristics”

The CPC’s „Global Times” survey, published shortly before the Congress, revealed that 80% of respondents support political reform in China. At the same time, though, they agree that reforms should progress gradually. Vice-president of the Party School of the CC, Chen Baosheng, has also made a point on Party’s need to advance political reform, especially in view of fighting corruption and ensuring political integrity. „People’s Daily” has openly admitted that the CPC is not afraid of political reform. However, dreams of Western-style democracy are just what they are: dreams. Pursued by those in the West who fail to acknowledge China’s unique system, based on a symbiosis of continuity and gradual change. As Hu Jintao put it straightforwardly in his opening address to the 18. Congress, „China will never copy a Western political system”. „Canonical” or „authoritative” as it was according to Kerry Brown, Hu Jintao’s speech reaffirms the foundations that the CPC and PRC rely on. Selection of PBSC members is also an unequivocal sign of a direction chosen: while more „liberal-minded” politicians, such as Wang Yang, have been somewhat sidelined, a man responsible for party propaganda – Liu Yunshan – has secured his position at the very top. This clearly indicates a more conservative direction CPC has taken with this Congress. Whether such a stance is to be associated with the fight against corruption and maintenance of domestic order or can be translated into a tougher perspective on China’s foreign and security policy remains to be seen.

Xi takes over the military

Interesting game of leadership succession has also taken place in the military. The CPC’s Central Military Commission is the supreme body overseeing Chinese armed forces, which still vow their allegiance primarily to the party rather than the state. Interestingly, the exchange of almost entire CMC had taken place already a week before the party Congress commenced, and that has certainly given the outgoing generation of leaders an advantage in shaping the new leadership of armed forces. However, contrary to expectations, Hu Jintao did not follow an example set by his predecessor Jiang Zemin and was not allowed to remain on the post of CMC Chairman for two more years. Rather, Xi Jinping has been elevated directly to this position, which adds up to a sense of Hu Jintao’s „failure”, as he will effectively leave official politics in March 2013. Xi Jinping, who did his time serving actively in the military, starts to consolidate his position very quickly. Meanwhile, the rest of the CMC is composed of a mix o Hu’s, Jiang’s and Xi’s proteges. The PLA has now new chiefs of four General Departments (Staff, Political, Logistics and Armaments) as well as two vice-chairmen, new commanders of the air force and nuclear capable Second Artillery Force. Numerous reshuffles have taken place with generals being moved between headquarters in Beijing and the regions. Attention should be paid especially to the „helicopter rides” of gen. Fan Changlong and gen. Zhang Shibo, who gained their posts in CMC without having played any major military role before. Former intelligence chief, gen. Ma Xiaotian has been assigned the role of air force commander, which proves a rising status of both the intelligence and the air force. At the same time, selection of gen. Wang Guanzhong, widely regarded as outsider, to the post of intelligence chief, is viewed as an effort to keep this service branch under control of the military rather than the party. In sum, changes in CMC reflect a continuation of a broader trend of PLA’s modernisation and professionalisation.

Eyeing the 2022 Congress

Among the names of those who did not make it even to the Politburo the one worth mentioning is certainly Hu Chunhua. Known as „Little Hu”, a protégé of Hu Jintao and his close aide in Tibet, he is just 49 and is already regarded as Xi Jinping’s successor in 2022. His eventual election would mark an anticipated „twist” in leadership pattern at the very top of China’s party-state structure. Being a tuanpai (like Hu Jintao), Hu Chunhua would balance the decade under princeling Xi Jinping. However, as he is also regarded as „a leader with a human face”, he can also potentially end the pattern where a hardliner (Jiang, Hu, Xi) takes the helm of the party and the state, whereas the prime minister does the PR job. In this sense, another „populist” generation can succeed an „elitist” one. An increasingly open and diversified Chinese society may require that in ten years to come. Provided of course, that candidate’s ties and connections prove to be strong enough.

In early March 2013 China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, will rubber stamp the new leadership thus making it the representation of the state. The world will closely watch how the new team handles China’s immense domestic difficulties, its behaviour in the region and its changing status on the international stage. Will Chinese political system stand up to the challenges?

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Paweł Bieńkowski

Absolwent Instytutu Stosunków Międzynarodowych UW (2011), studiował również na University of Kent w Canterbury (2008-9). Odbywał staż w brukselskim Egmont – The Royal Institute for International Relations, gdzie prowadził badania dotyczące współpracy UE z jej partnerami strategicznymi w dziedzinie zwalczania zagrożeń transnarodowych (2011). Reprezentant Polski na obchodach EU-China Year of Youth 2011 w Brukseli i Shenzhen. Praktykant w Ambasadzie RP w Pekinie (2010). Prezes Koła Wschodniego UW (2007-2009). Działa na rzecz popularyzacji idei Azji w środowisku akademickim. Członek Centrum Inicjatyw Międzynarodowych w latach 2010-2013.

4 komentarzy on "Triumph of the elites. New leadership of China unveiled"

  1. This is really good question indeed. Both the size and power of PBSC have been changing over time, reflecting the power structure at the very top. The very strong leaders, such as Mao and Deng, did not seek to maintain a powerful PBSC. This has changed under Jiang and Hu. In contrast, decision to limit the size of the PBSC from nine to seven members, having been formally a consequence of cutting down the Politburo to just 10 members, is first of all a sign of consolidation of a conservative leadership of post-congress CPC. Secondly, in my opinion, this move has served a purpose of sidelining Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang, whose reformist views apparently did not fit the newly adopted party line. Very conveniently, a „trimmed” PBSC simply could not accommodate these two.

  2. Leon

    omg Polacy rozmawiaja miedzy soba po angielsku… zluzujcie zwieracze troche. TO ze sie zna jakis obcy jezyk nie oznacza od razu ze trzeba nim przesadnie sie afiszowac a juz szczegolnie miedzy osobami tej samej narodowosci. Zenada. W koncu to polski serwis i zagranicznych gosci mozna tu policzyc na palcach jednej reki…Smieszni ludzie z was. Znajacy angielski (wow big deal) ale smieszni…

    • Drogi Leonie, chyba lepiej od Ciebie znamy statystyki odwiedzin naszego bloga i wiemy kto nas czyta. Przykro nam jeśli uważasz to za zbytnie „afiszowanie się” – dla nas nie jest to problem: artykuł jest po angielsku jeśli ktoś chce go skomentować po angielsku to ma prawo. Po polsku też może 😉

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