China Power

The Perils of Predicting Chinese Politics

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China Power

The Perils of Predicting Chinese Politics

Speculation is mounting over the next generation of China’s leadership. Expect the unexpected.

In recent weeks, rumors have swirled about the outcome of the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party—expected in a month or two—and the composition of such key leadership bodies as the next Politburo Standing Committee, the small group that holds ultimate power.  At the moment, conventional wisdom holds that its membership will be reduced from nine to seven, with the crucial portfolio for law and order handed down to a Politburo member who does not sit on the smaller standing committee. 

Nevertheless, predicting the outcome of elite political bargaining in China is perhaps as messy as the backroom negotiations themselves.  To illustrate the difficulty of such predictions, consider what happened before the last major leadership turnover back in 2002 at the 16th Party Congress.

That summer, two respected scholars, Andrew Nathan and Bruce Gilley, published a book that predicted precisely who would be placed on the standing committee, their protocol (or rank) order, and what positions they would hold.  They based their forecast on internal party dossiers about the candidates that had been leaked to a writer in Hong Kong.

Looking back, the accuracy of these predictions can now be assessed.

First, Nathan and Gilley were wrong about the total: the standing committee selected in 2002 was enlarged to nine rather than kept at seven. 

Second, Nathan and Gilley were correct about only five of the nine individuals who made the team.  The most important omission was Li Ruihuan, who they predicted would be promoted to the number two slot in the protocol order but in fact was not named to the Politburo Standing Committee at all.   They also missed the additions of Jia Qinglin, Huang Ju and Wu Guangzheng, who gained spots numbers four, six, and seven.

Third, perhaps most importantly, Nathan and Gilley correctly predicted only the portfolios of three members.  And two of these were easy and no surprise to anyone:  Hu Jintao became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and president of the country while Wen Jiabao was designated as Premier.  They also predicted correctly that Zeng Qinghong, then a long-time advisor to outgoing President Jiang Zemin, would head the party secretariat, its ruling bureaucracy.  Nevertheless, Wu Bangguo wound up as chairman of the National People’s Congress (not the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference as they expected), Luo Gan headed the CCP’s political and legislative affairs committee (not the Central Disciplinary Inspection Committee), and Li Changchun got the commission on building the “spiritual culture” of socialism (not the Executive Vice Premiership).

The point is not to pick on Nathan and Gilley.  After all, they were bold enough to publish clear predictions, which were re-examined in a revised edition of their book.  They also noted correctly that other individuals such as Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and Bo Xilai had great potential for becoming important leaders in 2012. Moreover, their predictions may have been as accurate as possible for outsiders at the time the materials were received and the book written.  Nevertheless, the real-life selection of top Chinese leaders requires a great deal of internal party bargaining and often may not be confirmed before the congress actually opens.

A decade later, scholars and analysts have much greater access to sources of information about Chinese politics.  Nevertheless, the process itself remains opaque, not just to outsiders but also to most Chinese citizens and even party members.  As a result, although a few winners of places on the next Politburo Standing Committee are well-known, all predictions about China’s next leaders and their exact responsibilities should be treated with caution.  As for me, I’ll wait until the congress makes its official announcements.

M. Taylor Fravel is an Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be followed on Twitter @fravel.