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Handicapping China’s Leadership Transition

When the Chinese Communist Party holds its 18th Party Congress this fall, it will usher in a new generation of leaders for the first time in a decade. Particular attention will be paid to the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), the powerful nine-member body that effectively runs the country.

The retirement age for senior Chinese leaders of 68 is strictly enforced. As a result, all but two members of the current Politburo Standing Committee are being put out to pasture. The two holdovers, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, are near-certainties to stay on the PBSC; Xi is widely expected to assume the presidency and Li the premiership.

The other seven spots are up for grabs, and even experienced China watchers are unsure who will fill them. The Sinostand blog runs the ruler through some of the contenders, discussing both their chances of ascending to a coveted committee spot and assigning them an ideological value on a spectrum of +1 to -1.

Sinostand explains the system here:

I give Liu Xiaobo a +1 and Mao a -1 to represent China’s political extremes. So an absolute moderate would be 0. I’ve attempted to put the contenders for the PBSC on this chart to indicate their rough ideological leanings. Yes, this is a gross oversimplification and very imperfect. Some leaders are very economically liberal while at the same time politically conservative, which makes it hard to place them on this one-dimensional scale. It is very unscientific but thus is the nature of Chinese politics. Chinese leaders are notoriously secretive and it’s usually a mystery how much individual responsibility they have for a given policy. But I’ve tried to give them incremental ticks to the left or right based on past actions and statements, as well as supposed political allies.

Xi gets a -0.05 (moderate) while Li receives a +0.30 (fairly liberal). For those wondering, the purged Bo Xilai would have received a -0.50.

Ultimately, Sinostand believes that the new PBSC will have a slightly more liberal tilt than the previous regime:

In one way or another, the liberals look poised to take greater influence, but remember, that’s “liberal” by Chinese standards. Nobody (not even Wang Yang) is going to want to do anything too quickly. In fact, Xi Jinping and the whole Politburo will probably play it safe for the first year with the “stability first” status quo while they consolidate their power.

Whoever they are, the new leadership team will have their work cut out out for them. The days of double-digit economic growth have disappeared, perhaps for good. Social and political pressures are not dissipating. And on the geopolitical front, Beijing will have to decide how to respond to America’s recent successful initiatives in the region while maintaining good relations with its increasingly jittery neighbors.

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  • Anthony

    Once new PBSC has been established, Chinese leadership as seen from Western point of view will probably exhibit little geo-political difference short term – despite jittery neighbors or perhaps because of.

  • Luke Lea

    I hadn’t realized China had recently abolished habeas corpus.

    See this interview by the author of The Fat Years:

  • Luke Lea

    OT, but a nice quote on how fortunes were made in China a dozen years ago. No cherubs allowed:

    “Feng Lun, who is now the chairman of the Vantone Group, described the Hainan period to me as resembling the gold rush in the American West: weak government controls, vague regulations, a stampede of fortune hunters. “Lots of strange things happened there,” he told me as we sat in a cigar chamber at a plush Beijing hotel. A wiry, genial man with rimless glasses, his thinning hair carefully brushed across his scalp, Feng looked more like a scholar than like a business tycoon. “For example, in a business quarrel you’d be tricked into a night club where you’d be shoved up against a wall in a dark room, with a gun pressed in your belly, and you’d be forced to sign a contract. This happened to people in our company. From time to time, someone would just disappear—murdered. Official seals were being faked all the time. But it was a very happy time. Because you suddenly arrived in a completely free zone—no law, no restrictions, no need to care about all that rotten traditional stuff.”

    Feng told colorful tales of uptight Beijing cadres going to Hainan night clubs—brothels, essentially—where they were ministered to by “little misses,” and of their evolution from excruciating awkwardness to debauchery. “When your local hosts asked you to go to a night club, you could not refuse,” he told me. “Because that’s where people discussed business. You say, ‘I’m pure’? Then no business for you.” It took Feng, with his State Council background, a while to get used to the absence of order and security. “Then you discovered that life was very free and very crazy, and you enjoyed it very much. Experiences like that would change your view of the world, your norms of right and wrong.”

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