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Reflections on China's 18th Party Congress

*This is the third installment of Jonathan Brookfield's coverage of the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Read part 1 here. Read part 2 here.

By Jonathan Brookfield

The 18th Party Congress is over, and the results are in. Going forward, the CCP's Poliburo Standing Committee will have seven members: Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli. Xi is ultimately expected to take on three positions as Party Secretary General, Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), and PRC President. Li is designated to be Premier. Zhang Dejiang will be Chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC). Yu will be Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CCPPC). Liu is in as Executive Secretary of the Secretariat. Wang is in as Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), and Zhang Gaoli will be Executive Vice Premier. In addition, the new 25 member Politburo will consist of 10 incumbents, and 15 new faces. Given how things have unfolded, what lessons may we draw from how things have turned out? And what do the results portend for the future? 

Looking at the overall sweep of predictions over time regarding the likely composition of PSC members, I think we can feel pretty good. A number of early, broad lists turned out to include all the names of those who now sit on the PSC. Moreover, several of the final lists coming out just before the beginning of the 18th Party Congress were spot on, going seven for seven in terms of predicted names and actual results. As far as PSC membership is concerned then, from a certain perspective, there are not too many surprises in the outcome of the 18th Party Congress.

That said, the importance of keeping track of the age and seniority of potential candidates seems to have been bolstered by the results, whereas individual backgrounds and a matching of future challenges to professional experiences seems to be less crucial. In particular, all three individuals young enough to be considered for promotion to the PSC and who had already served two terms on the Poliburo were, in fact, promoted. Similarly, all those on the PSC and Poliburo over a certain age moved into retirement. In short, there seems to be a continued adherence to a set of rule based norms centered around age and seniority, and an institutionalization of the transition process in the PRC, for the most part, continues to gather steam (although the shift in size of the PSC from nine members to seven demonstrates that the process itself has not been made completely predictable and that some elements are still subject to change).

On a personal level, I admit some surprise that Yu Zhengsheng ultimately made the PSC, while Li Yuanchao did not. But this undoubtedly reveals more about my lack of appreciation for seniority in Chinese leadership decisions than anything about the individuals themselves. More striking perhaps is what seems like a general under-representation of individuals closely connected with Hu Jintao in the next PSC (roughly two out of seven). When Hu first came into power, he seemed handicapped by a PSC stacked in favor of individuals closely connected with his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Looking at the new PSC, the same can hardly be said of Xi Jinping. Given the new composition of the PSC and the fact that Xi has now also taken over as chairman of the CMC (something Hu was not able to do until nearly two years after assuming the mantle of Party General Secretary), it would seem that Hu's political influence is either much less – or much more subtle – than what we have seen in the past.

While several commentators have noted that the new PSC line-up appears to bode ill for liberalization and reform, for me what is most interesting are the hints of potential future political configurations now visible in the makeup of the new Politburo. If, for example, recent trends regarding age and seniority are any guide, it would appear that Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao are both extremely likely to be promoted to the next PSC, and overall, eleven individuals seem well worth watching over the next few years (see Table 1). While the futures of the other nine individuals listed in the table are far less clear, two items seem particularly notable. First, given that Wang and Li are generally regarded to be closely associated with Hu Jintao, if there is to be any kind of factional balance on the PSC in 2017, the other individuals with reasonable chances to rise in 2017 would seem more likely to be people like Wang Huning, Zhang Chunxian, or Han Zheng than Liu Qibao or Zhao Leji (the latter two being generally seen to be aligned with Hu). Second, the stage seems to have been set for an interesting contest for Sixth Generation leadership between Hu Chunhua and Sun Zhengcai. At age 49, both are currently serving as Party Secretaries (Hu in Inner Mongolia and Sun in Chongqing as of today, and previously, Jilin). The two are also the only members of the new Poliburo born in the 1960s. 

Will it be Hu or Sun that takes charge in 2022? Will either, both, or neither make the PSC in 2017? With Chinese politics being at times rather volatile (as the Bo Xilai case has demonstrated) and the world economy showing its own instability (see, for example, the 1997-98 Asia Crisis, the Internet Bubble, and 2008-09 American financial crisis), making any kind of predictions about events ten years down the road seems like a fool's errand. Instead then, two observations: We live in interesting times. Chinese politics is unlikely to be dull.      

Download a table of the PSC members here.

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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.

[Photo courtesy of Remko Tanis' photostream]

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