China’s leadership transition and challenges for the next five years

Updated On: Oct 26, 2007

History has moved one circle as China seems to set to be led by the Shanghai bang (clique) once again, having left the orbit of the Shanghainese Communist Party leadership when former President Jiang Zemin stepped down.

In order to survive, the 54-year-old Xi Jinping from Shanghai, and seen as Jiang’s protege will have to manage two rival power centres which emerged from last week's 17th Party Congress. One centre is represented by President Hu Jintao and his allies from his power base, the Communist Youth League (CYL) while the other power centre is a broad grouping of leaders from privileged backgrounds and whose families have powerful business interests and links with the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Xi must be extremely cautious about not offending President Hu who makes no secret of his backing for 52-year-old Li Keqiang, an economics professor, who as the leader of the north-eastern Liaoning province, came out only second-best in this leadership race, as evidenced by his lower ranking on the country's top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). Mr Li is obviously not a member of the Shanghai clique. Li is set to succeed Premier Wen Jiabao, No. 2 in China and seen as a defeat for President Hu who was hoping that Li would be the future President instead. Their ties reportedly go back over two decades, when they worked together in the Communist Youth League. In addition, half of the six-member Communist party secretariat was staffed with Mr Hu's allies. This is another power bloc working against Xi.

Li’s critics questioned his suitability for China's top job, saying he had not distinguished himself sufficiently as a provincial leader. Part of the reason may be because Mr Li is known to be cautious and extremely private, rarely smiling or straying from the party script in front of the press at last week's congress. However, even President Hu had to submit to the collective leadership of the whole PSC plus the will of party elders such as Jiang Zemin.

Mr Xi is said to be supported by China’s most powerful members of new CCP 25-member ruling Politburo - a loose coalition of leaders loyal to retired leader Jiang Zemin and outgoing Vice-President Zeng Qinghong consisting mostly of the Shanghai clique and the princelings of senior veteran CCP members.  Mr Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun was an ally of Mr Zeng. Although Vice President Zeng Qinghong has stepped down from power voluntarily, he successfully installed two of his proteges - Mr Zhou Yongkang and Mr He Guoqiang - to the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) as a check on President Hu’s power. Most importantly, Zeng was said to be instrumental in securing the promotion of Shanghai party boss Xi Jinping, 54, to the PSC, where he is now in a position to succeed President Hu Jintao. Mr Xi is also supported by the increasingly financially powerful Zhejiang clique, allies of the Shanghai Clique.

Mr Xi is now hoping that his father's links with President Hu's late mentor Hu Yaobang would make him also acceptable to the current President. He must show that he is able to cooperate with President Hu.. As party leader in Zhejiang, Xi had followed Mr Hu's policy of more balanced economic growth. In the area of economics, Xi is also favored by foreign financial dons. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who came to know Mr. Xi when Mr. Paulson ran Goldman Sachs, described the Chinese leader as “the kind of guy who knows how to get things over the goal line.”

Mr Hu, the CCP chief, was careful not to be seen taking sides when he introduced the new leaders. 'Comrades Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are two quite young comrades' was all he said about them when introducing the new PSC, which included the newly-promoted Mr He Guoqiang, 64, and Mr Zhou Yongkang, 65. Hu himself must strike a delicate balance between his strengthened position as the President while taking note that only one of the new appointees to the Standing Committee, Li Keqiang, party secretary of Liaoning Province, clearly owes his rise in the Chinese hierarchy to Mr. Hu. Three others, including Xi Jinping are consensus choices favored by Mr. Jiang and Mr. Zeng as well as Mr. Hu. Mr. Hu had hoped to remove two other officials, Mr. Jia and Li Changchun, who were promoted mainly by Mr. Jiang. The fact that they remained in high positions reflects the resilience of Mr. Jiang’s role as the dominant party elder.

Other than Xi and Li, there were other closely-watched rises of the new Chinese leadership. Liu Yandong is all set to become China's most powerful woman. Ms Liu, 61, replaces the retiring Ms Wu as the only woman in the newly-elected 25-member Politburo of the 17th Communist Party of China Central Committee. As the minister of the party's United Front Work Department, Ms Liu has been responsible for winning over non-Communists to its agenda and ideology and her position as the vice-chairwoman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference also suggests that pursuing a peaceful reunification of China will remain to be one of her key priorities. Ms Liu is a "princeling" - her father is former Vice-Minister of Agriculture Liu Ruilong. Ms Liu’s power base arises from her backing by President Hu Jintao and she is also allied with the Communist Youth League.

Ms Liu is extremely important to Hu because the President is keen to expand the number of non-Communist leaders within China’s top leadership in an effort to "expand the patriotic united front and unite with all forces that can be united.” Wan Gang and Chen Zhu, now minister of science and technology and minister of health, have been the first non-Communist cabinet appointments since the late 1970s whenChina launched its economic reform and opening up. "Promoting harmony in relations between political parties, between ethnic groups, between religions, between social strata, and between our compatriots at home and overseas plays an irreplaceable role in enhancing unity and pooling strengths," Hu said.

China also appears to have filled its top leadership team with new officials bearing proven track records, rather than those who merely possess powerful connections as the nine newcomers who joined the Chinese Communist Party's elite 25-member Politburo had solid education and work credentials and forged their experience in the provinces or at key ministries. Even the princelings like Commerce Minister Bo Xilai, son of Bo Yibo, has been credited with transforming north-eastern Dalian into a thriving port city during his stint as mayor in the 1990s. The 'Fifth Generation' leaders are a multidisciplinary bunch who are trained in a wider range of disciplines, including law, history and sociology, compared to the current batch which is mostly made up of engineers. Nevertheless, there are additional seats up for grabs such as the CMC vice-chairmanship vacated by the retiring Defence Minister Cao Gangchuan (72 years old) and such positions could be the next battlegrounds for Xi-Li factions and might be crucial in the power struggles to follow.

In the meantime, the current President Hu still has a lot of jobs to do. In his keynote speech to the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Hu Jintao promised to deepen reform in the income distribution system to reverse the growing income disparity in the country. "We will increase transfer payments, intensify the regulation of incomes through taxation, break business monopolies, create equal opportunities, and overhaul income distribution practices with a view to gradually reversing the growing income disparity," he told more than 2,000 delegates to the congress. "Vigorous efforts will be made to raise the income of low-income groups, gradually increase poverty-alleviation aid and the minimum wage, and set up a mechanism of regular pay increases for enterprise employees," Hu said.

The other big issue is the environment. President Hu Jintao promised to clean up China's polluted environment. "Ecological and environmental quality will improve notably," Hu said in a televised speech to party leaders gathered for a key congress. Beijing will "promote a conservation culture by basically forming an energy- and resource-efficient and environmentally friendly structure of industries, pattern of growth and mode of consumption”. 

After the much watched 17th party congress, attention will now be focused on how the new leadership will deliver on Hu’s promise of narrowing the income gap and cleaning up the environment. (25 October 2007)


Walking a tightrope (Straits Times, 24 October 2007)

Walking the talk (Straits Times, 24 October 2007)

China's next 'Iron Lady'? The only female Politburo member, Liu Yandong looks poised to shine (Today, 24 October 2007)

Collective leadership may be emerging (Straits Times, 23 October 2007)

China has chosen? (Straits Times, 23 October 2007)

Hu protege down but not out, say analysts (Straits Times, 23 October 2007)

A formal and carefully-scripted media debut (Straits Times, 23 October 2007)

Politburo takes in 'tried and tested' officials (Straits Times, 23 October 2007)

Shanghai leader emerges as likely successor to Hu (Straits Times, 23 October 2007)

Hu Jintao heads Politburo Standing Committee, with four new faces joining in (People’s Daily, 22 October 2007)

Politburo in China Gets Four New Members (NY Times, 22 October 2007)

Hu Jintao vows to "reverse growing income disparity" (People’s Daily, 15 October 2007)

Hu promises to promote more non-Communists to leading positions (People’s Daily, 15 October 2007)

China's Hu promises cleaner environment amid economic reform (AP, 15 October 2007)

Hu Jintao calls for enhancing "soft power" of Chinese culture (People’s Daily, 15 October 2007)