We now have the names of the seven men who will run China for the next decade, the new Politburo standing committee, arguably, the most powerful septet in the world. Xi Jinping, long the heir assumptive as paramount leader, heads, in order of precedence, Li Keqiang, the presumptive prime minister; Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang, the man sent to clean up Chongqing after Bo Xilai’s ousting and who looks set to become head of China’s rubber-stamp parliament; Shanghai party secretary Yu Zhengsheng; propaganda chief Liu Yunshan; Vice Premier Wang Qishan, the economic reformer being shunted off to be the Party’s disciplinarian; and Tianjin party secretary Zhang Gaoli, the most pro-reform member of the standing committee after Wang.
A first reading of the list suggests that the security and propaganda interests have held their ground while the economic reformers have lost some. The important calibration, though, is between the Party’s factions. The list, close to what was expected, bears a heavier than expected stamp of former president and leader of the Party’s Shanghai faction, Jiang Zemin, at the expense of his successor President Hu Jintao, whose power base lies in the Party’s rank and file organization, the Youth League. Yu Zhengsheng, Shanghai party secretary, makes the final cut, pushing out Li Yuancho, the head of the Party’s organization department and a Hu loyalist. Wang Yang, the 57-year old Guangdong party boss and a Hu protege, also didn’t make the cut, but his promotion had faltered in earlier political horse trading. His losing out may have been the price Hu paid for Bo’s ousting. Both he and Li were identified with political reform.
Most significantly, to this Bystander’s eye, is that Xi takes over the chairmanship of the Party’s military commission, and thus oversight of the armed forces. Hu was expected to hold the post until the end of the leadership transition in 2014 and thus give himself a political base to be a power behind the throne once he yielded his Party and state jobs.
This is a line-up designed to keep a tight lid on China’s development over the next decade. It is not one to to take political or economic risks in a period in which the country will grow less fast than it has for the past three decades and which will face the challenges of dealing with a rebalancing of the economy at home and finding a place for itself in the world abroad. Several of the new leaders have deep roots in state-owned companies and infrastructure investment. The vested interests have circled their wagons.
Jiang’s presidency was marked by a spate of bold economic reforms without any substantive movement towards political reform. China has developed to a point since where a repeat of that formula may just not work. No country has become rich without developing good-quality institutions to support the rule of law, sound governance and political accountability. Without that there is political instability, government inefficiency and the prevalence of corruption. The new leadership has set out its stall in a bet that it can tackle those three challenges without giving up the Party’s monopoly on power. It is a brave bet.
Footnote: Xi and Li are the only two members of the new Standing Committee in their fifties. The other five are all 64 and up. Given that Politburo standing committee members generally retire at 70, it may be only Xi and Li of the fifth-generation leaders who serve two five-year terms.