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China’s Final Bend Toward a New Politburo Standing Committee

By Jonathan Brookfield

One of the world's most important political events is nearly upon us.  On November 8th, the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will begin in Beijing, and by the end, a new set of members for the CCP's Politburo Standing Committee will have been selected.

The Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) serves as the highest decision-making body in the People's Republic of China, and seven of its nine incumbent members are expected to retire shortly.  What comes next is critically important, not just for China, but for the world.

In a World Policy post at the beginning of the summer (“Changing of the Guard: China's New Politburo”), I suggested that, although most commentators seemed to be taking a nine-member PSC as a given, the size of the PSC was by no means fixed in stone.  Since then, there have been an increasing number of articles suggesting that the size of the committee may in fact be cut from nine to seven, with accounts suggesting an increase in decision making efficiency and a desire for unity at the top being important reasons for the cut. 

Who then is likely to serve on the Politburo Standing Committee?

At this point, things seem to be getting clearer and clearer.  While there is not yet unanimity, reporters, analysts, and commentators like Willy Lam at the Jamestown Foundation; Keith Bradsher, David Barboza, Edward Wong, and Jonathan Ansfield at The New York Times; Shi Jiangtao at the South China Morning Post; Ho Pin, founder of Mirror Books in Hong Kong; and former US ambassador to the PRC Jon Huntsman have put forward recent lists of potential members of the next PSC (see Table 1). 

Looking at the lists, one can see some similarity.  Most notably, they all include current PSC members Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang along with Zhang Dejiang and Wang Qishan.

The differences are also instructive.  As we look across the lists from earliest to most recent, Wang Yang's name seems to have disappeared, while Liu Yunshan’s and Zhang Gaoli’s names appear increasingly prominent.  Moreover, apart from some doubts expressed by New York Times reporters, expectations that Yu Zhengsheng will become a member of the PSC seem pretty high, which could leave Li Yuanchao on the outside looking in.

As far as positions are concerned, both the South China Morning Post’s Shi Jiangtao and Mirror Books founder Ho Pin see Xi as the next Party General Secretary, Li Keqiang as Premier, Zhang Dejiang as head of the National People's Congress, Yu Zhengsheng as chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC), Liu as part of the secretariat of the Central Committee, Zhang Gaoli as Executive Vice Premier, and Wang as head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Party’s top anti-corruption body.

While Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao might ultimately end up on the PSC in five years time, if predictions of their absence from the next PSC hold, such omissions seem to indicate an unexpected weakness in Hu Jintao's political position.  Both Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao are considered protégés of Hu Jintao, and if the predictions coming out of Hong Kong are correct, that would leave only two members of the next PSC closely associated with Hu, Li Keqiang and Liu Yunshan.

While in Taiwan this summer, I met with Professor Chien-Wen Kou, Director of the Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies at National Chengchi University.  He and his co-author, Wen-Hsuan Tsai, had just published a book focusing on the Chinese Communist Party's 18th National Congress, and we talked about the upcoming event.  In thinking about some of China's biggest challenges going forward, we identified four: trouble in China's financial sector, anger associated with land use and development policies, systemic corruption, and difficulties dealing with minorities in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia.

With respect to which of China's top leaders seem best prepared to deal with these issues, Professor Kou suggested that, although some feel Wang Qishan may be overconfident, he seems to have the best background among all the leading candidates for dealing with financial sector crises (in the 1990s he served as vice governor of China Construction Bank, vice governor of the People's Bank of China, and then governor of China Construction Bank).  Similarly, Wang Yang seems well positioned to deal with land issues, having already dealt with such questions in Guangdong (he has earned praise for his handling of the Wukan protests that began in September 2011 after officials sold land to developers without properly compensating villagers).  While the question of corruption is a difficult one, according to Professor Kou, Meng Jianzhu may be seen as relatively less corrupt.  Finally, having many years of experience in minority regions and speaking Tibetan fluently, Hu Chunhua probably has the most experience dealing with questions of China's minorities. 

As far as Xi Jinping is concerned, having spent many years in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces and known for a market-friendly approach, he seems well positioned to deal with issues of industrial development (Xi Jinping's father was one of the architects of China's Special Economic Zones).  How he will cope with other issues facing China going forward is less clear. 

Given what appears to be the emerging shape of the next Politburo Standing Committee, it seems that age and seniority may be trumping other candidate attributes in the selection process.  After so many months of uncertainty and speculation, however, we should know a lot more soon.

Download a table of the potential PSC members here.




Jonathan Brookfield is an Associate Professor of Strategic Management and International Business, at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

(Image courtesy of Lanfranch)

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