A list of the seven men who will comprise China’s new inner ruling elite is emerging. Only two of the nine current members of the Politburo standing committee are not retiring in this once in a decade leadership transition. They are Xi Jinping, heir presumptive to President Hu Jintao, and Li Keqiang, who is expected to take over the prime ministership from Wen Jiabao.
Only five of the seven retirees, it seems, are going to be replaced. A smaller Politburo standing committee will make it easier for Xi to assert his sway over a body that rules by consensus. That he needs a smaller group to achieve that indicates the depth of the divisions remaining within the Party. Not that the fact that factions within the Party vie for power and position comes as any surprise. The Bo Xilai scandal bears ample evidence to that, albeit an only too rare example of it breaking into public view.
The list of names now doing the rounds suggests that the jockeying continues. China’s factional infighting is a matrix of constantly waring but shifting alliances. Broadly, on one side, are those who believe the Party’s future legitimacy to rule depends on delivering rising living standards through the existing mechanisms of state capitalism and maintaining the stability that requires through traditional political and social control. On the other side, are those who believe that China has developed to the point at which delivering ever higher standards of living can only be done by embracing fundamental economic reform, even at the cost of disrupting deeply entrenched vested interests. The vested interests line up as opportunity suits them.
How this scrap plays out is more than an matter of idle political pugilism. As we have noted before (see: The Battle Behind The Birthday For A Billion), this leadership transition takes the Party across a demographic Rubicon. The new leadership’s working political life has only known China transforming itself as a rising political and economic power, even if its members are as pragmatically committed as their predecessors to the Party’s monopoly on power. The split, as noted, is whether the basis for that should be ideological or economic. With China’s economy at a critical moment of transition, how that resolves itself will matter greatly to the rest of the world.
The gang of seven reflects the forces on both sides of that divide, and the outgoing leadership’s attempt to bridge it (harsher critics might say, to paper over the cracks). Most obvious is the apparent omission of Wang Yang, the 57-year old Guangdong party boss who is the most public advocate of political reform, save perhaps for Wen, in the upper echelons of the Party, and the inclusion of Liu Yunshan, the Party’s 65-year old hard-line head of propaganda. Wang’ passing over may be price that has been paid for Bo’s ousting.
Wang Qishan, now a vice-premier, is the leading economic reformer among the seven, with Zhang Goali, the Party boss in Tianjin, in support. The remaining two of the septet, Zhang Dejiang, who was sent to clean up Chongqing after Bo’s ousting, and Li Yuancho, who heads the Party’s organization department, are Hu loyalists. There are to protect his legacy and ensure the stability he sees as vital. They will act as cautious brakes on too rapid reform. How much impetus Xi choses to give to reform will be the deciding factor.
The list bears the imprint of former President Jiang Zemin, a powerful if increasingly spectral background figure still. It is said to be the work of him, Hu and Xi, a consensus list for a consensus leadership that will be led by a compromise candidate, acceptable to princelings (of which he is one), nationalists, party apparatchiks, generals and reformers alike, all groups, it should be said, that overlap and interweave.
It is also not the final word. It still could face challenges from powerful party elders who fear they or their interests could be attacked or marginalized under the new regime. Reformers could make a bid to get Wang back on the list. There might be a move to include a woman, possibly Liu Yandong, the state councilor responsible for health, education and sport education. The standing committee could yet stay at nine-strong.
The Party plenum starting on November 1st is when the list will be finalized. It will then go to the Party Congress due to start on November 8th to be rubber stamped. Then comes a couple of years of Xi sparring with Hu as the outgoing president successively yields his Party, state and military offices while attempting to cement his legacy and power behind the throne.
It is worth remembering that Hu first championed Li as his successor but threw his support behind Xi when it became clear that Xi was outflanking his competitor. Cunning, calculating and ambitious Xi plays politics like a chameleon playing poker. The new team may be more in his own image than at this point we imagine.