The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China will convene this autumn as the culmination of a secretive transfer of power at the very top of the Communist Party (CCP). This dossier will help introduce the people who are poised to ascend to this highest level where all critical decision making in China takes place.
The nine-member Central Politburo Standing Committee is the highest level of decision-making in Chinese politics. Though the workings of the committee are shrouded in secrecy, it is commonly accepted that it sets the agenda for both domestic and foreign policy and reaches decisions by way of consensus voting. The exact selection process for membership is also an unknown, though it is thought to be long and exhaustive and likely involves some form of a vote among the most senior members of the CCP.
The process isn’t a complete mystery however as there are a few facts that are available in the public record. First of all, seven spots will be up for grabs at the end of 2012 due to current members reaching the age limit of 67. There will also be a simultaneous rollover of seven of the twelve members of the Central Military Commission, a committee composed primarily of senior generals that is responsible for the command and control of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
There are several rumors swirling around the coming leadership transition, and in the sealed-off arena of Chinese politics, a rumor is often held in the same esteem as a fact. According to Boxun, a Chinese citizen journalism site, the ballot for new standing committee members has been reduced to five, making for a total membership of seven given the fact that Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are keeping their posts. If true, this would return the standing committee to its pre-Jiang Zemin size and in doing so likely streamline the decision-making process. And then there’s the rumors surrounding the stunning fall of former CCP star Bo Xilai. Bo’s habit of playing on symbols and themes from the Maoist era gave him somewhat of a reputation for being a hardliner. His fall from grace and removal from all party positions has thus been interpreted as a victory for reform elements within the party, and it seems safe to assume that the standing committee seat that was once reserved for Bo will now end up going to a more reform-minded candidate instead.
Xi Jinping (習近平) - Vice President and Standing Committee Member
Xi Jinping is one of two standing committee members that will retain their posts, and he’s tipped by many to become the next president of the People’s Republic of China. He is regarded as one of the “princelings,” a CCP leader whose rise to power was aided by family connections. The connection in question stems from Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, who was one of the CCP’s founding members. Xi briefly studied agricultural techniques in America during the 1980s. His wife, Peng Liyuan, is a popular Chinese singer who is also a major-general in the PLA. If there is one issue that Xi has built his political legacy on, it’s a hard stance on corruption. He is thus seen as having the moral authority to clean up graft within the ranks of the CCP.
Li Keqiang (李克強) – Vice Premier and Standing Committee Member
Li Keqiang is the other standing committee member who will likely retain his post. He is tipped by many to replace Wen Jiabao as China’s Premier. Born in 1955, Li has an academic background in economics and his political rise took him through the Henan provincial bureaucracy. A leaked US diplomatic cable described Li as ‘engaging and well-informed.’ And he has a reputation for being sympathetic towards the plight of China’s poor. Perhaps he will come to play the good cop to Xi Jinping’s bad cop in much the same way Wen Jiabao did with Hu Jintao.
Wang Qishan (王歧山) – Vice Premier and former Mayor of Beijing
Another princeling, Wang Qishan is tipped to become the first ranked Vice Premier behind Li Keqiang in the new administration. He is well-liked by foreign investors due to his economic background and frank personality. His biggest political success thus far has been the restructuring of Guangdong banks in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 90s, a sleight of hand that is seen by many as having rescued Chinese economic growth.
Li Yuanchao (李源潮) – Head of the Politburo Organization Department
Li Yuanchao is currently responsible for the appointment of senior party, government, and military officials, and he’s tipped by many to replace Xi Jinping as vice president. He came up through the Jiangsu provincial bureaucracy and is said to have allies in both Hu Jintao’s Youth League power base and among the princelings as well. Like Xi Jinping, Li Yuanchao was sent to work on a farm during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution. He holds degrees in mathematics and economics as well as a doctorate in law, and has spent time studying at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Liu Yunshan (劉雲山) – Director of the CCP Propaganda Department
Originally a schoolteacher, Liu Yunshan came up through the Inner Mongolia bureaucracy before being appointed minister of the CCP’s Propaganda Department in 2002. Thus far, he has displayed a preference for keeping domestic media on a very short leash and he has presided over several attempts to reign in freedom of expression among China’s internet users.
Liu Yandong (劉延東) – State Councilor
Liu Yandong is the only female member of the Politburo. She is part of the ‘Tsinghua Clique,’ a group of fourth generation Chinese leaders that graduated from the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing. She is also a princeling, as her father was once a vice-minister of agriculture, though she also maintains deep ties with President Hu Jintao by way of Tsinghua and the Youth League. If appointed to the standing committee, she would become the first female member in the history of the CCP. However, her age would preclude her from serving anything longer than one term.
Wang Yang (汪洋) – Guangdong Party Chief
Wang Yang recently presided over the anti-corruption protests in Wukan, a crisis that he displayed considerable flexibility and tact in resolving. This has helped to build on his reputation as a liberal and it has given him the air of a peacemaker within the ranks of the party. He was Bo Xilai’s predecessor in Chongqing and the two of them shared a rivalry that was celebrated enough to earn them the nickname ‘the two cannons.’ Given their past, Bo Xilai’s loss is evidently Wang Yang’s gain.
Zhang Gaoli (張高麗) – Tianjin Party Chief
Zhang Gaoli is another candidate who has built his reputation on anti-graft crusading, having originally been sent to Tianjin on a mission to clean it up after a high-profile scandal. An economist by training, Zhang is said to be an ally of former president Jiang Zemin.
Zhang Dejiang (張德江) – Vice Premier in Charge of Energy and Chongqing Party Chief
Another ally of Jiang Zemin, Zhang Dejiang is still reeling from the damage done by a corruption scandal linked to railways minister Liu Zhijun in 2011. Still, his recent appointment to replace Bo Xilai as Chongqing Party Chief suggests that he may still be in the running to fill a standing committee seat.
Zachary Fillingham is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com