China's Next Generation

Jeremy Paltiel on the hard choices ahead for the 18th National Congress of the CCP.
By: /
November 7, 2012
Professor of Political Science at Carleton University

On November 8, 2012, over two thousand delegates will assemble in the Great Hall of the People to begin the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This Congress will inaugurate the transfer of power to a new generation of Chinese leadership. This is only the second time in China’s history that power has been transferred peacefully according to pre-determined schedule. After a decade in power, the fourth generation of communist leaders will hand over to the fifth. Despite every effort to project an image of stability, events of the past year have been anything but routine. The late night crash of a black Ferrari, a would-be defection of a crusading police chief and the dramatic murder trial of the wife of a Politbureau member (and his subsequent dismissal from office) have shattered the Party’s calm demeanour. Lurid headlines prove the Party can no longer hide its secrets, highlighting its need to shore up popular support.

Behind the headlines lies a deeper anxiety: the capacity to tranquilize the public by engineering double-digit economic growth is coming to an end. A nationalist upsurge unsettling China’s neighbours is not just a sign of China’s growing power, but a symptom of a frustrated public whose aspirations for greater political participation has been put off too long. Stability comes with a price, and the fourth generation leadership under Hu Jintao is passing the bill onto Xi Jinping. To move China to a middle class, high consumption society requires addressing inequality, building a social safety net, and raising wages without risking the newfound wealth and growing assertiveness of the urban middle class. China must find a way to bask in its achievement without antagonizing neighbours and risking relationships with its major trading powers, including an American superpower that grudgingly yields room at the table. The Party can neither survive as a privileged stratum aloof from the people, nor can its leaders wishfully delude themselves that satisfying their own needs has no impact or bearing on the surrounding world.


How China manages its transition will affect Canadians both directly and indirectly. Moving China to a high consumption middle class society will both boost our exports, and moderate the threat of competition from low-priced imports. A stable China at peace with its neighbours can continue to underpin global economic growth and expand international trade. A more open and participatory China will assuage Canadian anxieties about increased Chinese investment and boost confidence that changes to the global distribution of power won’t bring an open multilateral order and a global framework of cooperative security to a crashing end. China alone will not determine the fate of the world, but should China’s leaders falter, the tremors are sure to be felt around the globe.

The Congress Agenda: The Script, Roles, Speeches

To understand what the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party means, we need to look at what the congress does and how the leadership selection process in China affects policymaking. (See Figure 1)

On the agenda there will be three main items: the delivery and approval of the General Secretary’s political report; the presentation, discussion and approval of changes to the Party Charter; and the election of a new Central Committee alongside the Central Discipline Inspection Commission. The new leadership will emerge at the first plenary session of the 18th Central Committee held immediately after the Party Congress. The Central Committee will elect the members of the Politbureau, its Standing Committee (PBSC), the chair and members of the (Party) Central Military Commission and the Secretaries of the Central Committee Secretariat. (See Figure 2)

One should not expect dramatic departures in the political report by outgoing General Secretary Hu Jintao, albeit it will set the policy tone over the next five years. Quite likely, the incoming General Secretary, who is certain to be the current Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, will deliver the speech on the changes to the Party Charter. This is likely to feature enshrining Hu Jintao’s guiding slogan, the “scientific development theory” alongside Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, and (Jiang Zemin’s) ‘Three Represents’.

Xi Jinping will not reveal the blueprint of his own policy until his speech to the First Plenum of the 18th Central Committee, a speech that may not be published in entirety for months, if ever. Outside observers will pay particular attention at the Congress and the subsequent CC Plenum to what may be said about political reform, which has been widely acknowledged within the Party to have stalled over the past decade despite Premier Wen Jiabao’s vow to pursue it ‘with his dying breath.’

Looking down from the stage, the Presidium of senior leaders will gaze into an audience of loyal minions and an idealized representation of the best in Chinese society. Some 2270 delegates to the Congress have been ‘elected’ from 40 constituencies of the 82 million members of the CCP. This includes 31 Provincial Party delegations, the People’s Liberation Army, and a number of constituencies whose exact nomenclature is not revealed but which includes delegates from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, State Owned Enterprises and the Central Organs of the Party and government. Some 70 per cent of the delegates comprise top line executives (cadres) throughout the Party and State apparatus. About 30 per cent represent model workers ranging from the youngest member, 22-year-old Jiao Liuyang, female gold medallist at the London Olympics in the 200-meter butterfly, to various workers, scientists and student village cadres deemed worthy as models. The Central Organization Department of the Party laid down strict guidelines for the selection of delegates from each constituency. There are no ‘insurgents’ or ‘dark horses’ in Communist Party elections.

The main drama at the Congress comes in the elections to the Central Committee. The blanket rule that all executives below the Politbureau must retire at 65 and may not serve more than two full terms (10 years) in any one post guarantees relatively high turnover in Central Committee elections. In the months prior to the Congress there has been a thorough turnover of leaders at the provincial level, which will be reflected in the CC. There are some 200 full members of the Central Committee (CC) with a further hundred and fifty elected as ‘alternates’. The members of the Central Committee include the top executives of the party and state at the central and regional level. State Council ministers, provincial governors and Party Secretaries, heads of major enterprises, Army generals, have their political status validated here. (See Figure 1)

The pre-ordained outcome of the elections to the Politbureau and its Standing Committee (See Figure 3) has been the object of intense bargaining at the highest level among the incumbents and retired leaders like Jiang Zemin, who retains considerable patronage power. The PBSC is the top deliberative and executive decision-making body in China. While the General Secretary gets to set the agenda, he cannot proceed with any policy initiative without the explicit consent of his colleagues. Zhongnanhai watchers look at the make-up of the PBSC for what its client networks reveal about policy preference and how free a hand the General Secretary may have to launch new initiatives.

The number of members of the PBSC is expected to be reduced back to seven (where it was prior to the 16th CC) from the current nine. To ensure regular turnover, members of the Standing Committee of the Politbureau must be younger than 68 and be members of the current (i.e. the immediately previous) Politbureau. The General Secretary must be able to serve a full ten years before reaching the age of 70, but other members can serve a single term (i.e. five years) Only Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang are eligible to remain on the PBSC.

Of the 25 current member of the Politbureau, excluding Bo Xilai, whose removal is subject to confirmation at the final plenum of the 17th Central Committee at the end of October, only eight members are eligible to fill the five or seven slots available on the PBSC. With the exception of Wang Yang, Party Secretary of Guangdong and the youngest member of the Politbureau, all will have to retire before the next (19th) Congress in 2017. Of these, Vice-Premier Wang Qishan, who is the leading economist in the top leadership and who is popular both inside the Party and outside China, is considered to be a shoo-in. Most observers expect Yu Zhengsheng, Party Secretary of Shanghai, to take up a position outside the PBSC, but should Wang Yang, known for his liberal outlook both on market and political reform make it in, his youth might make him a serious rival to Li Keqiang, the Premier designate. By contrast, should Xi Jinping be surrounded by elder colleagues, he will find it hard to establish his authority in a culture where seniority and precedence matter. For that reason, he will prefer a PBSC reduced in size.

The wider Politbureau should see the rise of one or two faces born in the 1960’s. Hu Jintao’s CYL protégé, the Party Secretary of Inner Mongolia Hu Chunhua is widely touted to carry the torch for the ‘Sixth Generation’ of Party leaders and as the insider for the next succession. It is too early to tell who might join him. The elections to the Central Committee should also include faces from the ‘Seventh generation’ – those born after 1970. These junior stars will broadcast criteria for the next generation of leaders. The military does not have a seat on the PBSC.

While Xi Jinping is certain to emerge as General Secretary at the First Plenum of the 18th Central Committee, it is not certain when he will inherit the post of Chair of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Rumours suggests he might do so soon, allowing him to inherit the job of Commander-in -Chief two years earlier than Hu Jintao did in his leadership transition. Uniformed officers dominate the CMC with only the Chair as a civilian member. There is speculation that the Premier or Premier designate Li Keqiang might join Xi on this body, thus strengthening civil-military coordination as well as civilian authority over the military.

The next stage in succession will come at the first session of the Twelfth National People’s Congress, China’s national legislature, which will be ‘elected’ over the coming months and will convene its first plenary session in early March. Right before the NPC meets, the Second Plenum of the 18th Central Committee will ratify the choices for President, Premier, and Chair of the NPC as well as the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) alongside the slate of Vice-Premiers, State Councillors, and Ministers. There should not be big surprises here, but the list of ministers will include new faces including some who are not Party members.

Factions and Factionalism

The appointive selection process we described earlier favours patron-client ties. Elite competition is channelled into the formation of factional networks. The leadership contenders are divided among the ‘Youth League’ and ‘Shanghai’ factions. The former is closely associated with current General Secretary Hu Jintao, who himself was elevated to head the Communist Youth League (CYL) under Hu Yaobang in the mid 1980’s.

The ‘Shanghai’ faction is associated with former General Secretary Jiang Zemin, comprising his associates from his days as Party Secretary of Shanghai before he was elevated to become General Secretary in Beijing.

These days, attention is given to the so-called “princelings,” children of veteran communist leaders who have risen high in Party ranks. Jiang was the son of a minor revolutionary martyred in the Sino-Japanese War. Xi Jinping and the disgraced Bo Xilai are the most prominent members of this princeling group.

Both Xi and Bo are children of high ranking revolutionary leaders persecuted during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960’s who returned to senior positions under Deng Xiaoping. The difference Xi Jinping might bring to the leadership of China is shaped by a unique combination of experiences. He began his political career by earning the trust of poor peasants at the grass roots in China’s northwest while still under a political cloud. Alone among the current generation of leaders, he has worked inside the military apparatus. For two decades, he oversaw economic development in China’s most advanced coastal areas before assuming his role as heir apparent.

Unlike observers like Cheng Li at Brookings, I do not subscribe to the theory that princelings are more elitist in contrast with more ‘social-democratic’ CYL associates. The “self-made” are just as ready to flaunt their new-found status as their colleagues born with a silver spoon. Where the Youth League faction is made up of deferential strivers who made their way up through the ranks, the “princelings” are self-confident individualists who, like Bo Xilai, display their ambition on their sleeve. Loosely associated with this group is Vice-Premier Wang Qishan. Wang graduated in history, but his career as an economist was kick-started because he is the son-in-law of former financial supremo Vice-Premier Yao Yilin.

Party leaders surround themselves with loyal clients given the low level of trust in Chinese society and the secrecy shrouding a closed political system. Nonetheless, the pattern of orderly succession put in place by Deng Xiaoping ensures that no leader can accumulate absolute power, as did Mao Zedong. Under this system, the incumbent cannot designate his own heir. Hu Jintao was selected to succeed Jiang Zemin by Deng Xiaoping, and Hu Jintao, whose own favourite was Li Keqiang, had to defer to Jiang Zemin in selecting Xi Jinping. Likewise, Hu Jintao will surround Xi by his own clients and allies to deny him absolute power and ensure “collective leadership” or government by consensus.

Bo Xilai Affair

It is impossible to discuss the coming transition without mention of the Bo Xilai affair that upstaged much of the attention on the transition in 2012. Because Bo was born in 1949, the informal rules made him ineligible for the Party’s top post, but his publicity juggernaut was building momentum to propel him onto the PBSC.8

The Bo Xilai affair tore away the veil over corruption and intrigue at the Party’s highest echelon, at the same time that it revealed the hesitancy of the senior leadership when faced with a recalcitrant member of the Party oligarchy with a genuine popular following. As long as it could, the Party propaganda machine had borrowed Bo’s charisma to buttress its own image. When that image collapsed, the Party confronted the dilemma of how to blacken his name without tarnishing its own. As if to hammer home the reality that Bo was not an isolated ‘rotten apple,’ the demotion in late August of Hu Jintao’s closest associate, his former chief of staff Ling Jihua, gave credence to the raging rumour that the black Ferrari that had crashed on a Beijing Ring-road killing the male driver and injuring two semi-clad young women in March, was indeed driven by Ling’s son.

The Limits of Consensus Politics

With the retirement of Deng Xiaoping, the last leader of the revolutionary generation, collective leadership has become the norm in practice as well as in ideal. The innate conservatism of a consensus regime precludes bold initiative. Xi Jinping has to defer to Hu, just as Hu deferred to Jiang, until he grasped the full reins of power. Even then, he will be surrounded by clients of Hu Jintao at least until his second term begins in 2017. This partly explains the slow pace of political reform. Moreover, because Xi will be careful to groom his own clients in order to consolidate his authority, he is unlikely to risk his appointment powers on rash experiments in democracy.

Nonetheless, the main message of the Bo Xilai scandal is that neither Xi nor the Party can put off political reform indefinitely. The built-in cronyism of an appointive process breeds corruption. Corruption corrodes the legitimacy of the Party and undermines the authority of the centre by abdicating power to the highest bidder instead of carefully planned policies devised by the central authority. Moreover, an increasingly educated and plugged-in population chafes under the blatant paternalism of the Party and is prone to mock its pretentions whenever it can.

By the end of Xi’s term, China’s educated urban middle class will comprise the majority of China’s population. They will be too sophisticated to show deference, and too aware of their interests to sacrifice them for the whims of officials. Xi Jinping will not only have to meet the needs of urbanized Chinese, he will have to engage them. Fortunately, Xi and his generation have had an active history of engagement at the grassroots and developed a comfortable relationship in dealing with the public, more like Premier Wen Jiabao than the diffident and stiff Hu Jintao. These political skills will be tested in the coming years as the Chinese leadership is forced to deal with a slowing economy and an aging population that is increasingly demanding over quality of life issues.

The Fifth Generation

The past two generations of Party leaders were dominated by trained engineers like Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Wen Jiabao. By contrast, Li Keqiang received his first degree in law, while Wang Qishan graduated in history. Xi Jinping received undergraduate education in chemical engineering. However, his incomplete middle school education before he was sent down deep into the boondocks, and the foreshortened curriculum of the Cultural Revolution when he attended university as a “worker-peasant-soldier” student, never truly qualified him as a professional engineer. The engineering mindset of Hu Jintao’s “scientific development theory” is likely to be softened to a more flexible and pragmatic outlook more appropriate in the humanities and social sciences. The fact that both Xi and Li received their college educations after time spent among grassroots peasants has relevance. Also important is that they spent most of their careers as part of the Open Policy, and have had extensive interaction with abroad, and in the case of Li Keqiang, speak fluent English. This generation is more at ease with the public than was Hu Jintao, and certainly at home with foreign audiences.

Given the negative spotlight from scandals that have shaken the political core in China, the next generation led by Xi Jinping will have to earn support the hard way, by learning to engage the public, and by involving it in the painful choices that lie ahead. Xi Jinping has signalled his readiness to undertake political reform by seeking the counsel of Hu Deping, son of General Secretary Hu Yaobang, whose sudden death in April 1989 sparked the student protests that ended in the tragedy at Tiananmen. The major challenge for the Fifth Generation leadership is not simply to initiate political reform but to find solutions to problems where social interests radically diverge.

The immediate challenge to the new leadership will be to deal with a slowing economy. Sluggish growth in Europe and America and rising wages threaten China’s export markets even as a housing bubble at home hamstrings government efforts to apply economic stimulus to bolster domestic demand. The Party cannot simply order stateowned banks to open the spigot to state owned enterprises because China has reached the limits of productive investment in infrastructure when whole towns are sitting unoccupied. Further on, China’s leaders must confront the demographic challenge of a rapidly aging population due to a combination of rising life expectancy and the one child policy. The Party faces a growing contradiction between addressing those left behind in China’s breakneck modernization without antagonizing the urban middle class. The key challenge is to broaden the base of a consumer society, and that requires both better income distribution and a better social safety net to be paid for by those who benefitted most from reform thus far. A new class of property owners demands the protection of law, which cannot proceed without reducing official discretion with its pernicious side effect, corruption. The Party can solidify legitimacy by addressing social needs and gain the allegiance of the middle class by implementing the rule of law. Will the new Party leader scale back the political privilege that put him in power, or will Xi Jinping succumb to temptation by papering over conflicting interests by encouraging populist nationalism?

So far, the CCP has shown remarkable resilience. It has shrugged off isolation following Tiananmen and survived the collapse of the Soviet Union through enthusiastic integration into the global economy. China bounced back with renewed vigor and respect after the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 and the Great Recession of 2008. The CCP has successfully tied its own survival to the fulfilment of Chinese aspirations. Its greatest challenge may be to limit its own power in the same cause.

As Chinese expectantly await political change to catch up to their extraordinary economic success, Canadians should be prepared to set aside their prejudices and embrace Party experiments with a more open political process. Domestic efforts to overcome a legitimacy gap will affect perceptions of China’s behavior worldwide. China’s leaders may proceed by cautiously and tentatively “crossing a river by groping stepping stones” as they did with economic reform. All signs point in one direction, but the cost of stopping halfway will leave the Party to sink in its own corruption. As we consider China’s leadership transition we must soberly contemplate the cost to ourselves should the Chinese political system fail to achieve greater legitimacy and transparency. If China’s economy falters, so will our own.

This essay was first published by Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.