China’s leadership succession : new faces and new rules of the game

Au mois d’octobre aura lieu le 18ème Congrès du Parti communiste chinois. Au cours de cette réunion, la haute direction du Parti et de l’Etat sera renouvelée. Certaines nominations apparaissetn comme quasi-certaines tandis que d’autres sont encore en discussion. Le processus de succession a été perturbé par l’affaire Bo Xilai, du nom du chef du PC de la ville de Chongqing (35 millions d’habitants) qui a été limogé en mars. Zhengxu Wang et Anastas Vangeli analysent la signification de ces changements pour la politique extérieure chinoise et son impact sur les relations de Pékin avec l’Europe, dans un commentaire publié par l’Institut européen d’études de sécurité.


Generational turnover in the leadership elite is becoming more predictable in China. In the long run, this is intertwined with the process of incremental political reforms in China, and makes China’s internal politics a bit more transparent to the outside world. This has greatly helped us in understanding who are likely to emerge as the new leaders, how the outgoing leaders arrange the power transition, and what policy positions the new leaders are likely to take.

The second half of 2012 will see the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (the first one was held in 1921). The Congress represents both an occasion to re-calibrate the Party’s ideological and policy platform, and to facilitate the process of leadership succession. It will elect a new Central Committee of the Party, which will in turn elect its executive bodies, the Politburo (PB) and Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC).

The three bodies will basically take up the task of governing China for the next five years. The members of the Central Committee, comprising about 200 fully-fledged members plus 120 alternate members, will assume top positions such as those of ministers and provincial Party secretaries and governors. The PB and PBSC serve as the Party’s collective leadership and supreme decision-making instances in the country ; as such, they will directly determine China’s future policy orientations, and indirectly, the dynamics of global politics.

Emerging rules in leadership succession

For the most part of the history of the CCP, the leadership succession was an extremely opaque and contentious process, with the decisions being taken by leaders in a very small circle, often indeed by a sole individual. The top leader, Mao Zedong before 1976 and to a lesser extent Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, could more or less choose to stay in power until he died, appoint anyone he favoured to any powerful position, and depose anyone who he disliked or deemed incompetent.

Starting from the 1980s, Deng attempted to establish a set of rules to govern elite interactions and power succession. He re-institutionalised the Party Congress, and introduced age and term limits for leading government cadres. Some preliminary and tentative ideas were first tested at the 12th Party Congress held in 1982. By the time of the 16th Party Congress in 2002, a number of implicit and explicit rules seemed to have been established. 

Age and term limits now effectively rule out the possibility of top leaders staying in power for too long, resulting in much more predictable elite turnover. At the 15th Party Congress (PC) in 1997, the then no. 2 leader in the Party, Qiao Shi, had to retire as he was 70. Five years later, at the 16th PC in 2002, the no. 4 leader, Li Ruihua, retired at age 68 after having served two terms. Since then, 67 has become the oldest age for anyone to start a new term in the Politburo and PBSC : at the 17th PC in 2007, all PB members aged 68 or above retired, and the same is expected to happen at this year’s 18th Party Congress.

The age limit has therefore greatly curbed the rise of charismatic leaders and figures with sultanistic tendencies. It is also now a critical criterion when the Party identifies future leaders. For each cohort of leaders, a very small number (up to four or five), are expected to form the ‘core’, and are expected to sit on the PBSC for two terms, or ten years. This means that a small number of promising leaders must be identified early on, and be appointed to ministerial or provincial leadership positions in their early and mid-50s. The top one or two of these leaders will be promoted to the PBSC five years ahead of their scheduled takeover, serving one ‘apprenticeship’ term as heirs apparent.

Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, the current heirs apparent who are already being groomed to take over as the core of the incoming cohort, were indeed elevated to the PBSC at the 17th Party Congress in 2007, at the ages of 54 and 52, respectively. They and their top colleagues will be referred to as the Xi-Li leadership in the years to come.

The road to the 18th Party Congress

The preparations for the 18th Party Congress have been underway for more than a year now. A major step early on was the organisation of Provincial Party Congresses, which generated a new Party Committee and leadership team for each province. A total of 14 provinces and autonomous regions organised the Provincial Congresses during the autumn of 2011. The second half of the Provincial Party Congresses took place in 2012, the last one being the Beijing Party Congress, which ended in early July.

The other steps then follow. In early May 2012, a straw poll was reputedly held among 400 top leaders of the Party, regarding the new Politburo line-up. The result of the poll is not binding, but will serve as a basis for deliberation by the Party leadership. This is an important indication of the Party’s ongoing effort in building intra-party institutions that can govern the Party’s internal factions and deal-making.

In parallel, a working group is tasked with producing the Political Report for the Congress, a process that started almost as early as 1.5 years ahead of the Congress. This process is closely supervised by Hu Jintao himself and the preparatory committee of the Party Congress, which reports frequently to the PB. The drafting of the Report happens behind closed doors as the document not only consists of a summary of the work done, but, more importantly, serves as the political and ideological platform of the incumbent leadership.

Party and state agencies (including the military and police as well as top leaders of state-owned firms for example) at various levels will have restricted access to the various drafts, and will be asked to provide inputs as well as opinions. Social stakeholders, such as civil society groups and private business actors however, have no direct access to the drafting process, but will be briefed once the drafting is drawing to a close (China’s economy is still dominated by the state sector, with private firms contributing to a small fraction of the annual output).

Most probably in August, a Central Committee meeting will approve a draft of the Political Report, and the tentative list of the Politburo and PBSC line-up. The date of the Congress will also be fixed at this meeting. Then the Congress will formally open, sometime between late September and early November.

Yet, while the CCP has carried out the institutional preparations professionally and meticulously, several unplanned events have distracted China’s political elite in recent months. In early 2012, Wang Lijun, the Vice Mayor of Chongqing, mysteriously fled to the US Consulate in Chengdu, allegedly seeking asylum. This eventually led to the downfall of Bo Xilai, at the time the Party Secretary of Chongqing Municipality, and member of the PB.

For the last few years, Bo has campaigned fiercely to enter the PBSC. He promoted the so-called Chongqing model, based on a state-controlled economy and equal redistribution of wealth, led a crackdown on organised crime and promoted Maoist-era nostalgia by organising mass campaigns of singing old-time revolutionary songs.

The fall of Bo Xilai shows that, while elite politics in China has evolved towards institutionalisation and more predictability, negotiation and horse-trading among the top leaders may still fail to generate outcomes that satisfy all parties. Under such circumstances, political infighting can get out of control. At the forthcoming Party Congress, the Party will again attempt to project an image of unity and competence, and inspire the people to continue their support to the Party. But the prospects of the Party staying in power will depend on its ability to build better institutions to govern internal party politics, and introduce more political reform to make the system more transparent and accountable to the public.

International thinking of the new leadership

China’s rise depends on its ability to upgrade its economic and technological capacity. Therefore, the main challenge for the incoming leadership is to facilitate the transition from a labour-intensive and export-oriented to an innovation-driven and sustainable economic development model. This is reflected in the Party’s adherence to the ‘scientific development’ concept, and for the next five to ten years, this will still define the Party’s policy thinking. 

Moreover, the leadership transition occurs at a time when China is exposed to the aftershocks of the global economic crisis that have translated into lower economic growth rates. Economists now agree that a return to the double-digit growth rates of recent years is no longer possible, and the leadership will have to fight hard to achieve something like 7-8 percent growth per year.

Finally, China is experiencing rapid class stratification, and it is very likely that the incoming leadership will also focus on mitigating inequalities and adopting ‘harmonious society’ policies (this should be primarily the contribution of Li Keqiang, an enthusiastic supporter of the policies of the Hu-Wen Administration and one of the most vocal pro-equality figures among Chinese leaders).

Precisely because of these domestic challenges, it is very likely that in the Xi-Li era China will remain a primarily inward-looking country. In this sense, China’s international relations will be largely predicated on its domestic agenda. China will seek to expand its external exports markets, and secure technology and capital for its economic upgrading. It will also prioritise domestic security concerns over external ones, as Xi Jinping has already profiled himself as a hardliner when it comes to China’s core interests.

However, compared with the Hu-Wen team, the next cohort is likely to be more confident as China has now acquired more importance in the international arena. Regionally, we might see a more assertive China that will stand firm when it comes to its borders, particularly in the South China Sea, but also a more pragmatic and pro-active China, which will try to capitalise on the growing economic interdependence in East Asia and push for further regionalisation.

Globally, China is no longer a low-profile player : while the new leaders will strive to maintain good relations with the West and avoid confrontation, they will probably remain faithful to the distinctive normative model that China has sought to promote in the international arena, based on the idea of a developmental state – which prioritises sovereignty and economic development over the values advocated by the US and the EU (e.g. human rights), and aims to provide an agenda plausible to the developing world as a whole (best seen, for instance, in the global climate change dialogue).

China has become a key player not only in Asia and the Pacific, but also in Africa and Latin America ; it has also become increasingly involved in conflict areas and politically volatile situations, as seen in the cases of Sudan, Libya and Syria – this drifting away from its past low-profile posture of non-interference abroad will also be one of the main discernible trends during the Xi-Li period.


The new leaders’ EU and US policies

Under the future Xi-Li leadership, China’s American and European policies will likely remain centred around economic cooperation and trade. An important aspect of this will be mitigating the ongoing economic crisis, in particular in the eurozone – however, a direct help package or increased investment in bonds would be too risky a move for China’s new leaders, especially when they need to spend even more money at home.

The new leadership will likely keep on prioritising the economic relationship with individual EU member states – both with the severely indebted and not-so-indebted ones – and eventually build a strong core of supporters in Europe. The new leaders will continue to engage in the ongoing political dialogues ; however, they will not radically change the Party’s position on human rights and sovereignty.

With regard to its European policy, the new leadership will keep pushing for a lifting of the post-Tiananmen arms embargo and early recognition of China’s full market economy status. Its transatlantic policy will greatly depend on the outcome of the American elections in 2012, as China occupies a prominent position in the agendas of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney – the latter is much more likely to adopt a confrontational stance towards China in the global arena.

Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will be the two main individuals that define China’s relations with the world, with Xi taking over the Presidency and having main responsibility for dealing with foreign affairs. Xi has already completed an important trip to the US and Europe, during which he projected an easygoing and friendly image.

Xi’s attendance at a basketball game in the US drew many comparisons with Deng’s historic 1979 visit to a Texas rodeo arena, and demonstrates his potential to single-handedly enhance China’s soft power (another objective that will be transferred from the current to the future leadership). Xi has often been described as a conservative diplomat, a pragmatist, and a strategist who is more assertive than his predecessors, so it remains to be seen what kind of approach to foreign affairs he is going to adopt.

Li’s role will be mainly in the fields of economic and technological collaboration ; and he is also likely to be in charge of relations with the EU and member states. Li is an English-speaking, cosmopolitan figure, who during his studies translated the works of Western authors and familiarised himself with Western ideas. He will likely carry on the ‘good guy’ role initiated by the outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao.

Other leaders are less likely to play a highly visible role in international relations, with their portfolios focusing on essentially domestic issues. A limited role in foreign policy will be played by the PB members coming from the provincial and municipal governments, as they also have their own economic policy agendas, which are often ambitious when it comes to international cooperation and trade.