How to make sense of China’s leadership line-up

November 8, 2012

By John Foley

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

China’s big reveal of its top party leadership deserves careful reading. A day after the Communist Party congress ends on Nov. 14, a group of suited officials will take the stage, and China-watchers will try to make sense of who’s there and who isn’t. Xi Jinping is virtually assured the top spot; the rest are less certain. Here are five clues that the new line-up of the Politburo Standing Committee might offer about China’s direction in the next decade.

1. Hu’s crew

Outgoing party chief Hu Jintao is associated with the Communist Youth League, and a key question is how many of his fellow youth-leaguers end up at the top table. A simplistic analysis is that they tend to be more experienced in dealing with social issues like poverty and rural hardship, though less so in trade and the economy.

Li Keqiang, a former youth leaguer and current vice premier, is a shoo-in for the Politburo and the role of premier. But beyond that, Hu’s grip might be slipping. There’s a question mark over Li Yuanchao, the organisation department head who has called for serious reforms and an end to corruption. Liu Yunshan is close to Hu, though his position as a censorship tsar may count against him.

Stuffing the committee with allies is a traditional tactic for outgoing leaders: Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin both did it, and  Jiang may still be pulling rank this time round, along with former right-hand man Zeng Qinghong. They oversaw rapid growth, decisive reforms but also rising inequality. If the line-up has more allies of Jiang than Hu, that could set the tone for the next decade too.

2. The two Wangs

Reformists will be looking for two (unrelated) Wangs on the stage. Wang Yang, the party chief of Guangdong, has become something of a symbol for liberalism and reform, after presiding over apparently democratic village elections in the town of Wukan. He also refrained from cracking down on protesting citizens, though his motivation may be pragmatism as much as liberalism.

Wang Qishan’s record is more concrete: he has handled the strategic economic dialogue with the United States, and has worked in senior roles for the central bank and China Construction Bank. A keen reader of economic and legal history, Wang also has experience of managing a debt crisis, thanks to his time as Guangdong’s vice governor at the end of the 1990s.

Past performance is no guarantee of future intention. But the inclusion of one or both would be good for China’s image abroad, and raise the chances that talks with the United States on tricky issues like trade and human rights will be more constructive.

3. Girls allowed

It’s a long shot, but a woman on the committee would be good news for 48 percent of China’s population. Politburo member Liu Yandong , the only one who has so far been mooted, would be the first in China’s modern history. Her chances may be slim, partly because she lacks hands-on experience of running a province.

Gender imbalances are a big challenge for China’s long-term growth. As a percentage of the population, fewer women are now working than ten years ago. China’s female-to-male ratio is lower than the global average of 50 percent, and its birth rate a terrifying 118 boys per 100 girls. Putting a woman in a position of power won’t change that, but would be a good start.

4. Nine become seven

The nine-member politburo standing committee might lose two members, according to sources cited by Reuters. It’s easier to make decisions with fewer people around the table. But it might also mean that two portfolios, probably propaganda and public security, get downgraded.

That would return the committee to the same size as under Jiang Zemin in the 1990s – a period that saw more decisive reforms than Hu has managed. The risk is that without a wider debate, it becomes easier for individuals to wield power. That’s something China has been steadily moving away from since the days of strong man leaders like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

5. Breaking the habit

Traditionally, the new team walk on stage at the Great Hall of the People in order of importance – general secretary first, president-elect of the national legislature second, and premier-elect third – without introductions or explanations. It’s fitting for such an opaque political process.

True, the Party Congress isn’t normally a time for shaking things up – new leaders take time to consolidate power. But even the slightest tweak to the usual routine could be taken as a sign that Xi and his peers are taking China’s system in a new direction. In the absence of anything more concrete, that would be encouraging.

 

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