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Who Will Be Enthroned at China’s 19th Party Congress?

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Who Will Be Enthroned at China’s 19th Party Congress?

Reading the tea leaves ahead of China’s leadership reshuffle next year.

The year 2016 is undoubtedly an eventful one.

People who watch Asia-Pacific affairs have witnessed Tsai Ing-wen enter Taiwan’s Presidential Office Building. Soon, the United States will have its 45th president. As for China, a country that always keeps a low profile with respect to the “election” of the Communist Party of China (CPC) central leadership, the 6th Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee is currently convening in Beijing. According to precedent, this will be  the CPC’s last plenum before it holds the 19th National Party Congress. It is common sense that important decisions are in practice made before the Party Congress, implying that the leadership change will be a pivotal part of the agenda during the sixth plenum (perhaps a name list has already been drafted at the informal Beidaihe Meeting this past August).

In China, the shift in personnel at the highest party level is accompanied with mystery and uncertainty because of institutionalized opacity, including the “internal decisions” or “imperial appointments” made by the very top cadres. However, China watchers are expecting next year to bring about a major turnover of membership of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), China’s highest political body, because most of the current members will reach the “age redline” of 68 years.

There are four essential steps to predict who will become one of the “lucky few” that may be enthroned on the Politburo Standing Committee in 2017. First, normally speaking, standing committee members are selected from the Politburo (two significant outliers are Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, both of whom jumped from the Central Committee directly to the PSC and skipped the “interim” Politburo member position), meaning our “speculation scope” is limited only to Politburo members. Second, the CPC operates on a tacit understanding known as “seven up, eight down” or in Chinese qishang baxia (七上八下) followed by the Hu Jintao administration, which dictates only leaders 67 or younger can ascend to or remain in top posts while those aged 68 or older must retire. Third, tracing back through historical records, women have never had the chance to sit on the standing committee (even Jiang Qing and Ye Qun were not granted such a blessing during the high tide of the Cultural Revolution), indicating female politburo members Liu Yandong and Sun Chunlan will automatically be ruled out. Fourth, since Liu Huaqing’s exit from the standing committee in 1997, no Central Military Commission vice chairman has ever gotten a ticket to the Standing Committee. As a result, Xu Qiliang and Fan Changlong’s fates are doomed.

By and large, in line with the above-mentioned four rules, I predict that among the remaining qualifiers, Wang Huning, Sun Zhengcai, Wang Yang, Hu Chunhua and Zhao Leji or Li Zhanshu will replace the outgoing Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli. President and CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang are expected to be the only two current PSC members to return for another stint in 2017.

Wang Huning (aged 62 by 2017. Currently the director of the Central Policy Research Office): Wang Huning is a distinguished scholar-politician who was once the dean of Fudan University Law School. As an experienced principal theorist who has stayed in the Central Policy Research Office for nearly two decades, Wang is believed to have helped build the Party’s official political ideologies for three administrations, starting from the Jiang Zemin era. Wang’s possible promotion stems from the fact that Xi Jinping is pushing the state hard to reform as demonstrated by his establishment of the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms in 2013. Xi’s wish and the resulting behavior prompt people to recall Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, two pro-reform general secretaries in the 1980s.

In 1982, an unprecedented State Commission for Economic Restructuring was launched, proving Hu and Zhao’s vehement aspiration for reform. Afterwards, Bao Tong, a theorist with a loud voice in the chorus of political reformers, immediately gained Zhao’s trust and was given the position of his personal policy secretary. Three decades later, China again stands at a critical crossroad. This time, Xi appears bent on reinvigorating the dead central reform organization and underpinning the nation’s structure. He needs someone to better and directly provide theoretical guidance from the standing committee. It is very possible that the veteran instructor Wang Huning will be selected to fill this role.

Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua (both of whom will be 54 by 2017. Sun is currently the party secretary of Chongqing. Hu is currently the party secretary of Guangdong): The remarkable advantage enjoyed by both Sun and Hu is age. The two are the youngest Politburo members, hinting strongly that they have more promotion opportunities than others. Such benefits may be even extended to the 20th Party Congress in 2022 (by then they will be only 59 years old and could again be considered as candidates for the standing committee). The CPC’s tradition of picking young prospective cadres dates back to 1983. In that year, the CPC Central Committee decided to finalize a ministerial or provincial level reserve cadre name list, which Hu Yaobang referred to as “the third echelon name list.” Twenty-four years later, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang became the primary beneficiaries of Hu Jintao’s own third echelon mechanism. When Xi and Li were selected as standing committee members in the 1st Plenary Session of the 17th CPC Central Committee, Xi was 54 while Li was 52. Given this precedent, Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua are very likely to ascend to the next level.

In addition, Sun and Hu’s political legacies as provincial party secretaries are highly noteworthy. After assuming his new office, Sun Zhengcai launched the “fly-swatting plan” mainly targeting grassroot level corrupt cadres. His intra-province campaign put wind in the sails of Xi’s vigorous nation-wide anti-corruption efforts. On the economy side, the People’s Daily in July unprecedentedly set up a special column on its front page for Chongqing’s Liangjiang New District, introducing the experiences collected through the “One Belt, One Road” initiative and supply side structural reform. Being reported by People’s Daily, especially on its front page in the form of a serial special column, unequivocally signaled Sun’s achievements were recognized by the party center.

Hu Chunhua, meanwhile, may have impressed Xi Jinping through his intransigent attitude toward the Wukan protest. The siege of Wukan first broke out in 2011, when thousands of local villagers asked for a more transparent land transaction procedure and demanded their own farmlands back. The fire of the protest was soon put out, but the arrest of protest leader Lin Zulian this part September again ignited Wukan’s furor. As expected, the protest was suppressed, probably under orders given by Hu Chunhua. Stability maintenance is always the CPC’s top concern, and the official who can ease tumult flawlessly and calmly will stand out. For instance, in 1989, then-Party Secretary of Shanghai Jiang Zemin’s astute handling of the World Economic Herald incident was noticed by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Jiang then rocketed up to the position of CPC general secretary very smoothly. Now, Hu Chunhua’s resolute attitude toward the Wukan protest could be a vital catalyst that will accelerate his promotion. After all, Xi himself is acknowledged for harshness and is consequently likely to be in favor of a subordinate who also plays a hard line.

Wang Yang (age 62 by 2017. Currently vice premier of the State Council): Wang has always been a reformist, and thus is on the same page as Xi Jinping. According to a news report from People’s Daily, Wang, then mayor of Tongling, Anhui Province, won recognition from Deng Xiaoping in 1992 for his “Tongling Reform.” After he came to Guangdong as the new provincial party secretary, Wang proposed the “Liberation of Thoughts” campaign, revealing his will to reform the province. Accompanied with his bold declaration, Wang put forward the “Double Transfers” economic strategy (transferring both the lagging industries and the laborers within them to Guangdong’s rural areas). Besides, his astounding declaration to “let the enterprises which must collapse collapse” echoes with the reformist rhetoric from China’s former Premier Zhu Rongji, who said, “Let the market eliminate backward enterprises.” Now that China has initiated a new expedition toward a deep and comprehensive reform, Xi needs a dependable and experienced reformist assistant in his “cabinet.” Wang Yang is undoubtedly an eligible candidate.

Another conspiratorial yet eye catching explanation goes like this: Wang’s governance of Guangdong Province is sometimes referred to as the “Guangdong Model,” which was a rival of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai’s “Chongqing Model.” Before the 18th Party Congress in 2012, there was hot debate over which model was better (Wang and Bo have never admitted the existence of their so called “models,” and the invention of the two terms “Guangdong Model” and “Chongqing Model” may simply be Chinese intellectuals’ fancy). Nonetheless, Wang and Bo were regarded as two evenly matched “rivals” (both of them were provincial level officials from 2007 to 2012) competing for a single standing committee seat in the 18th Party Congress. As Bo was ultimately dragged down by Xi in 2012, Wang naturally emerged as the victor.

Zhao Leji or Li Zhanshu (Zhao would be 60 by 2017 and Li would be 67 by 2017. Zhao is currently the head of the Organization Department of CPC. Li is currently the director of the General Office of the CPC Central Committee): Normally, one of the members of the Secretariat of the CPC Central Committee holds a post on the standing committee (for now it is Liu Yunshan). Given that the head of the Propaganda Department (the head is at the same time a member of the Secretariat of the CPC Central Committee) usually has a ten-year tenure, Liu Qibao, the current head, is not likely to enter the standing committee in 2017. This means Zhao Leji and Li Zhanshu (they are both members of the Secretariat but their rankings are lower than Liu Yunshan and Liu Qibao’s) are two finalists for the last remaining PSC post.

It is hard to tell who will be favored by Xi because both Zhao and Li have rich governance experiences in Shaanxi Province, Xi’s hometown. According to one study, factional ties with top leaders play a substantial role in elite ranking. If this is the case, both men have high promotion opportunities.

For Zhao, one advantage may be that he is seven years younger than Li. As discussed earlier with regards to Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua, age is not a negligible factor. On the other hand, Xi appears to trust Li quite a lot. During the Beidaihe meeting this August, Li was exposed to the media more frequently than usual. He gave talks on personnel selection, party discipline, and ideology under different occasions.

I predict that Wang Huning, Sun Zhengcai, Wang Yang, Hu Chunhua, and either Zhao Leji or Li Zhanshu will be enthroned in the 19th Party Congress. However, there are numerous other variables to consider, which go beyond the scope of this essay. It is even possible that Xi could retain Wang Qishan on the standing committee for his excellent job in “hunting tigers” (taking down corrupt officials), despite Wang being at retirement age. Xi may also choose to personally increase the number of PSC members from seven to nine (Xi stopped Hu Jintao’s nine-member standing committee tradition. It is not impossible that he breaks tradition again).

In a nutshell, it is extremely hard to identify a regularized mechanism that can explain the CPC’s operation, let alone predict the personnel changes in the Party’s central leadership. The main reason is that the CPC operates according to many informal decisions and opaque practices, the exact rules of which are hard to determine. But this is precisely what makes Chinese politics and CPC governance fascinating.

Chutian Zhou studies political science and China at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy with an interdisciplinary education background in journalism and finance. This article originally published by the China Focus Blog at UC San Diego.