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Implications of China’s new leadership

6 November 2017

At the conclusion of the CCP’s 19th Congress, General Secretary Xi Jinping unveiled China’s new leadership line-up without anointing a clear successor. In order of seniority, the seven members of the top decision-making body of Communist Party of China---the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) are Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji, and Han Zheng.


Who are they?


Among the seven members, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang continued on from the 18th PSC . The other 5 were new but have been groomed for the PSC by serving at least one term on the 25 strong Politburo.


Li Zhanshu, 67, the most trusted ally of Xi Jinping, is Xi’s chief of staff and helps to handle Xi’s daily activities. It is in the 1980s when he and Xi Jinping both worked as Party Secretary of two neighbouring counties in Hebei Province that they built up close personal relationships. He worked his way up as governor of Heilongjiang Province from 2008 to 2010 and party secretary of Guizhou Province from 2010 to 2012. Then he was elevated to Director of the General Office of the Central Committee in 2012. He is also at the forefront of facilitating a strong Sino-Russian relationship and was appointed as the special representative of Xi to meet with Putin in 2015. He is likely to become head of China’s National People’s Congress in March 2018 and help bring momentum to China’s ongoing legal reform.


Wang Yang, 62, known as a bold reformer, has overseen the successful reforms in Guangdong and Chongqing. As a native of Anhui Province, he stood out among many contenders due to his outstanding capability without a prominent family background. Regarded as one of the most liberal members among the ruling elites, Wang is famous for advocating a greater role for free markets and supports gradual political liberalization. He has also played a major role in developing Sino-US ties. With both provincial and national experience (he worked as Vice Premier of the State Council since 2013), he looks set to take over as chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.


Wang Huning, 62, the chief theoretician and the brain behind the party’s doctrine, is the only one promoted to PSC without actual grassroots work experience. Fluent in French, he is part of Xi’s entourage and top aide of Xi during overseas visits. Before assuming central party posts, he was a professor in Fudan University in Shanghai after obtaining a master degree of law. With extensive policy-making experience in the Central Policy Research Office since 2002, he is expected to run the Central Secretariat and will be in charge of ideology, propaganda and party organization.


Zhao Leji, 60, a close ally of Xi, has overseen rapid economic growth and reform in China’s inland provinces-Qinghai and Shanxi before promotion. He entered Peking University in 1977 as a worker-peasant-soldier student and majored in philosophy. As the Director of the Central Organization Department since 2012, he helped to consolidate Xi’s position by placing Xi’s supporters into strategic and crucial positions. He succeeded Wang Qishan to become the Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and will continue the anti-corruption campaign.


Han Zheng, 63, a seasoned technocrat, has been mayor of Shanghai from 2003 to 2012 and party secretary of Shanghai since 2012. Without formal academic training, he worked his way up in CPC’s Youth League system and was considered as one of the Shanghai Clique led by Jiang Zemin. He is expected to become the executive vice premier of the State Council in March 2018.


Implications of the new leadership


A compromise? The new leadership line-up appears to bear the hallmarks of compromise to include not only Xi’s allies but also those close to former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Li Zhanshu and Zhao Leji are close allies of Xi jinping. Li Keqiang and Wang Yang are close to Hu Jintao with work experience in CPC’s Youth League. Han Zheng rose to prominence in connection with the Shanghai municipal administration and is thus considered as a member of the Shanghai clique led by Jiang Zemin. Although it is hard to define Wang Huning’s faction since he has accompanied three presidents and contributed to their ideology innovation---“Three Represents” of Jiang Zemin, “Scientific Outlook on Development” of Hu Jintao and “Chinese Dream” along with “Xi Jinping Thought ” of Xi Jinping, he is now very close to Xi.


Although the new leadership is to some extent a political compromise, Xi was elevated to the same exalted status as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping by enshrining “Xi Jinping Thought” into the Party Constitution. Moreover, several of Xi’s allies who are too young to join the PSC were put into the 25-member Politburo, such as Cai Qi-Party Secretary of Beijing, Chen Xi-Head of Organization Department, etc. In addition, membership of the Central Military Commission has also decreased from 8 to 4 to concentrate Xi’s power, with Xi being the president and his ally Zhang Youxia promoted to the vice president.


Conventions still matter. There was speculation that Xi Jinping would break the unwritten age rule of PSC--- whoever is younger than 68 could stay, but those aged 68 or over must step down--- and still keep his trusted ally Wang Qishan, who turned 69 in July. But Wang did not stand for office again which highlighted Xi’s desire for continuity and revealed that Xi still attached significance to political conventions and norms. There is of course already speculation about Xi standing for an unprecedented third time. He will be 69 in 2022 and failed to designate any younger successor.


Gender inequality. The 7 male members of the 19th PSC reveal that gender equality is still a low priority. There was a tiny increase in female delegates to the Congress (up from 23% in 2012 to 24.1% of the 2287 congress delegates this year) demonstrating that a glass ceiling still exist. There is only one female delegate in the wider 25-member Politburo and no female Party Secretary at the provincial level nationwide.


What’s the new focus? –There will be much continuity in domestic and foreign policy. Xi has a more expansive vision of China becoming a “great power” in world affairs. It is reasonable to expect a more assertive foreign policy from the promotion of China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi to the Politburo, the first time a diplomat has been elevated to such a position since 2002. Moreover, with the promotion of the reformist Wang Yang and Han Zheng, who have led the reform of China’s most internationalized and developed economies---Guangdong and Shanghai, the new leadership might focus on continuing the economic reform especially in the context that Xi has successfully consolidated his power during his first term.