China’s new leadership—personalities, process, politics, priorities

China’s eighteenth National Communist Party Congress has concluded with the unveiling of its new leadership team, the Politburo Standing Committee.  This is the fourth leadership transition since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949 and marks the shift to China’s ‘fifth generation’ of political leaders.  The transition takes place as China continues its ascendancy as a regional and global power and at the same time as the CCP is attempting to manage a range of social, economic, and political challenges.

The personalities

At a press conference in Beijing on 15 November, following the week-long Party Congress, China’s new leadership was unveiled to its people and the world.  As expected, Xi Jinping has been pronounced as the next General-Secretary of the CCP, as well as chairman of the Central Military Commission.  Following approval from the National People’s Congress (China’s parliament) in March 2013, Xi will replace Hu Jintao as China’s President. Li Keqiang will be China’s next Premier, also from March 2013, replacing Wen Jiabao.  The other five members of the new Standing Committee are:
  • Zhang Dejiang
  • Yu Zhengsheng
  • Liu Yunshan
  • Wang Qishan
  • Zhang Gaoli
Short biographies of each of these figures, including Mr Xi and Mr Li, can be found here.
The Financial Times has characterised the new leadership as ‘a conservative group likely to favour cautious economic reforms and to steer clear of more radical policy changes’.  As many had predicted, the Standing Committee has been reduced from nine to seven members in an apparent effort to streamline decision making.

The incoming President and Premier both have visited Australia, Mr Xi as Vice-President in 2010 and Mr Li as Vice-Premier in 2009.  Australia’s former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has said that Mr Xi is no stranger to Australia and understands ‘where we fit’ in the Asian region.  A former Australian Ambassador to China, Dr Geoff Raby, has said the appointment of Mr Xi ‘bodes very well for the relationship’. The Australian Government has recently stated it aims to ‘build positive, cooperative and comprehensive relations with China’ and has confirmed it is discussing with Chinese officials a more formalised and regular bilateral dialogue arrangement.  

China is the world’s second largest economy (after the United States) and Australia’s largest trading partner.

The process

The CCP has over 82 million members.  The Party Congress, held every five years under tight security, was attended by over two thousand delegates and was the culmination of several years of behind-the-scenes planning and negotiationsamong senior Party members, both serving and retired.  It will result in a cascadeof personnel changes that will see 70 per cent of China’s senior civilian and military positions shift to new leaders, most of whom will remain in place for the next ten years.

As well as the seven member Politburo Standing Committee, the composition of the wider 25 member Politburo, the 204 member CCP Central Committee, and China’s Central Military Commission, which controls the army, has also been changed.  New leaders will take up their positions in the coming months, with those holding senior government positions to be approved by the People’s Congress early next year.

The next Party Congress, to be held in 2017, will review the new leadership’s performance at the end of its first term and will likely see further personnel changes ahead of the more important 2022 Congress.

The politics

In the months leading up to the Congress, there were numerous reports by Western and independent regional media speculating on the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that has accompanied the leadership transition.  Some analysts describedthe transition as ‘chaotic’, pointing to the delay in the timing of the Congress and multiple campaigns by different factions to discredit rivals through accusations and rumours of abuse of power and corruption.

While the elevation of Xi and Li was largely pre-ordained, the candidates for the remaining Standing Committee positions were seen to be protagonists in a variety of larger factional struggles.   These have been variously described as struggles between so-called liberal ‘reformers’ and the conservative ‘neo-Maoists’, ‘princelings’ (the sons and daughters of revolutionary Communist leaders) and ‘populists’ (usually associated with the Communist Youth League), as well as a struggle for personal power and influence between outgoing President Hu and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

All of this took place against the backdrop of the expulsionfrom the CCP of former high-profile Chongqing party boss, Bo Xiali, who was seen as a future leadership contender, as a result of a corruption and murder scandalinvolving his wife.

Both the incoming Mr Xiand the departing Mr Wenhave been the subject of recent Western media reports, reportedly blocked in China, on the reputed wealth of their families and their connections to various state-owned and private business interests.

The priorities

In his speechto the Congress, outgoing President Hu, like his predecessors, highlighted the major challenge that corruption poses to the future survival of the CCP.   He also affirmed the need for further ‘reform’.  While the nature of political reform was not specified, accordingto one Chinese academic, ‘reform’ in this context could mean granting  the judiciary greater independence, gradually making officials publicly declare their assets, and eventually allowing multiple handpicked candidates to compete for some party positions.  Hu alsohighlighted the need for China to safeguard its ‘maritime rights and interests’ and describedpublic ownership as the ‘mainstay of the economy’.

The priorities that the new leadership will pursue are not yet known and remain the subject of widespread speculation.  Most analysts agree that balancing economic growth with social stability will be their core domestic goal.  The new leadership will also be under pressure to advance a variety of inter-related reforms seen as crucial to addressing China’s profound economic and social challenges—enhancing the role of the private sector and scaling back the control exerted by monopolistic state-owned enterprises, increasing domestic wages and consumption, confronting inequality and environmental degradation, preparing for an ageing population, and tackling corruption. Many of these reforms were outlined in a landmark World Bank report, approved by Mr Li, released earlier this year.

Some China experts have arguedthat, at least for the short-term, the price of more domestic reform could be a more assertive and nationalistic foreign policy aimed at placating Party conservatives. Others have contendedthat, in the wake of the Congress, China will eventually ‘glide’ towards a less confrontational foreign policy stance toward its neighbours and the US as it focuses on domestic reform and economic growth, of which ‘the populace has huge expectations’.

Australia will be hopeful of the latter scenario as it begins to engage with the new leadership.     


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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