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Changing of the Guard: China's New Politburo

By Jonathan Brookfield

One of the world's most important political events is slated to occur this fall. And I don’t mean the U.S. presidential election but rather the selection of a new set of members for the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party in the People's Republic of China.

Serving as the highest decision making body in China, the PSC is expected to have seven of nine of its incumbent members retire this fall, and the dramatic change in its composition will affect the future direction of China's economy, politics, stability, and foreign relations. Given China's current position in the international economy and global community, how things play out is critically important—not just for China, but for the rest of world.

At this point, who will be chosen is unclear, though analysts such as Alice Miller (Hoover Institute), Yongnian Zheng (National University of Singapore), Cheng Li (Brookings Institution), and Willy Lam (Jamestown Foundation) have come up with lists of potential new members (see Table 1). Their studies raise many questions: Who are these candidates? What patterns do we see emerging? Going forward, what complications could occur that might affect the composition of the PSC?

Of the five analysts, Cheng Li has created by far the largest list of possible candidates (14 people). As a list that includes each and every individual noted by the other four analyses, it also serves as a pretty good baseline for considering potential contenders (See Table 2 for basic background information on the 14 potential candidates).

All analysts assume that the size of the next PSC will remain at nine and predict that current PSC members Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will continue to serve on it. Also included by every analyst are Li Yuanchao, Liu Yandong, Liu Yunshan, and Wang Qishan. In short, there seems to be a general consensus regarding six of the nine seats of the next PSC.

There are also some differences. There is a philosophical divide between those who see the process of leadership turnover as systematized, versus those who view it as contingent on difficult-to-observe political activities. Yongnian Zheng and Alice Miller provide good examples of a more institutionalist perspective, while Cheng Li hews more closely to a politics first approach.

As Li notes, CCP leadership has increasingly been structured around two informal coalitions—one that has generally advanced by way of the Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL) and so has garnered the label tuanpai, literally meaning "league faction"; and the Princelings led by individuals from families of veteran revolutionaries and high-ranking officials. A focus on such groups and their interactions is a central part of the politics first approach.

An additional distinction relates to which institutional norms matter most. Yongnian Zheng argues that the two most critical factors in the changeover are age and seniority. Alice Miller, on the other hand, emphasizes individual experience and how a contender's professional background will work with the responsibilities associated with particular PSC seats.

In practice, the above-noted differences in approach ultimately lead to conflicting treatment of about half a dozen names. Discounting Bo Xilai, whose hopes for advancement have crashed spectacularly, there are five recurring names for the final three seats—Meng Jianzhu, Wang Yang, Yu Zhengsheng, Zhang Dejiang, and Zhang Gaoli.

Given the complexity of the situation, the future composition of the PSC presents us with several opportunities to test the relative merits of each perspective. If Zhang Dejiang or Yu Zhengsheng fail to get a seat, that would be a blow to an institutionalist perspective based on age and seniority. Meng Jianzhu's selection would bolster a more experience based institutionalist approach. Finally, if Zhang Gaoli were to advance—say, over the elevation of Wang Yang—that would require some rethinking by Western analysts.       

Other complications are possible. Before the current nine member PSC, the committee had seven members, and prior to that, five. Chinese leaders have also used the imposition of a retirement age and the progressive lowering of that age to manage the transition process. In the current context, a lowering of the apparent retirement age from 68 to 67 would have negative implications for Yu Zhengsheng and possibly Liu Yandong, and such a move, in conjunction with political gridlock regarding suitable alternatives, would result in a reduction in the overall size of the body.

As the Bo Xilai case demonstrates, there are times when politics and circumstance interact to make a prediction of Chinese leadership changes next to impossible—and this upcoming election is no exception. Still, this fall presents us with a rare moment to test hypotheses about the inner-workings of one of the most secretive ruling groups on earth.

Table 1. Leading Candidates for the Next CCP Politburo Standing Committee (click on image to expand)

Table 2. Background Information on Potential Contenders for the Next PSC (click on image to expand)

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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 Remko Tanis)

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