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China’s 19th Party Congress: Political Precedent and the Politburo Standing Committee

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China’s 19th Party Congress: Political Precedent and the Politburo Standing Committee

While lacking transparency, Chinese politics is actually quite predictable.

China’s 19th Party Congress: Political Precedent and the Politburo Standing Committee
Credit: Pixabay

China’s political system has two problems. The first is its secrecy. The second problem, though, is very different: the simplified, hyperbolic caricature often presented in the West, where Chinese politics is usually depicted as a totally unpredictable fight for power. In this view, political events in China are simply the result of a power struggle between different factions and our lack of information makes any guesses all but useless.

But, while lacking transparency, Chinese politics is actually quite predictable, even more so than a democratic system is. We can be sure that a president will have over 15 years of political experience, that a 40-year-old will not join the Politburo Standing Committee, or that certain people, like the party secretary of Beijing or Shanghai, will be Politburo members. Over the past 20 years, China’s political system has accumulated an important number of precedents, some of which are strong, while others are new and yet untested.

Nonetheless, based on these precedents, we can attempt to create a theoretical framework in order to predict the evolution of the Chinese political system – in this case, the composition of the Politburo and its Standing Committee, after the 19th Party Congress. While some predictions might turn out to be off the mark, if the analytical framework is well designed, we have a yardstick that helps us better understand what the outcome means.

Take the fate of Wang Qishan. Speculation has become rampant that Wang, who is 69, might remain on the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), even though precedent says that he should retire. This speculation is based on the belief that Wang is Xi Jinping’s friend and right-hand man, implementing Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Thus, if Wang remains on the PSC, this is proof of Xi’s power.

But a careful analysis of the anti-corruption campaign proves that it isn’t so much Xi’s campaign, as it is the party’s campaign. So, let’s imagine that Wang stays on the PSC. It isn’t hard to predict the titles that will flood the English-language press, seeing this event as proof of Xi’s power and his desire to remain in charge after 2022. But this sign won’t mean much on its own. What if, along with Wang, Hu Chunhua (who is former President Hu Jintao’s ally) joins the PSC as vice president, while Chen Min’er, Xi’s ally, becomes vice premier? In such a scenario case, it would seem Hu Chunhua is the one being groomed as Xi’s successor, so Wang Qishan’s delayed retirement should be read not as a sign of Xi’s power, but as a party strategy to continue the anti-corruption campaign, whose success the party has attributed to Wang.

Without a coherent analytical framework, we cannot analyze the outcome of the 19th Party Congress and all commentary will be simple speculation. This is why we should look carefully at the past 20 years of Chinese politics and then build a predictive framework, which we can test on the occasion of the upcoming congress.

20 Years of Precedent

The real “institutionalization” of Chinese politics, based not on rules, but on precedent, began with the 15th Congress, in 1997. There are eight important precedents that have been formed in regard to the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC).

First, the number of seats on the PSC has changed at every generational turn (2002, 2012), but has remained constant within the same generation (1997, 2007). Based on this precedent, the PSC should remain at 7 seats.

Second, the pool of candidates is limited to the Politburo, with the exception of groomed future leaders. Only two non-Politburo politicians have been propelled directly to the PSC, without a previous Politburo term: Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. This means we will search for the next leaders in the entire Central Committee of the party, but select the other candidates only from the current Politburo.

Third, age is a central factor in determining promotion. The “67 up, 68 down” rule (meaning those over 68 must retire) is often brought up in the context of PSC formation, but the reality is more complex. Sixty-one isn’t a good age for promotion. With the exception of the two top leaders of the generation and Wu Bangguo, Jia Qinglin and Li Changchun (who were part of the third-generation and served on the PSC between 2002 and 2012), no other politician younger than 63 has joined the PSC since 1997. The logic is simple: those young enough to be promoted at the next congress are skipped. Those who would have to retire at the next congress are considered for promotion.

The only exceptions are the politicians groomed as future leaders, who join the PSC five years ahead of taking the reins of the party, like Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang in 2007. This year, the two are Chen Min’er and Hu Chunhua.

Based on this precedent, Wang Yang, Zhao Leji and Wang Huning shouldn’t be considered for promotion, because they will have another chance in 2022. Based on the 68 retirement precedent, the following Politburo members should retire: Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Zhang Gaoli, Ma Kai, Liu Yandong, Li Jianguo, Fan Changlong, Meng Jianzhu, Guo Jinlong. The case of Wang Qishan requires further analysis.

Fourth, members of the military are no longer promoted on the PSC, as part of the policy of party control over the armed forces. Thus, Xu Qiliang, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, will not be considered for promotion.

Fifth, unfortunately, even if they have been present on the Politburo, women have never ascended to the PSC. Thus, Sun Chunlan will not be considered for PSC membership.

Sixth, the trajectory of the careers of Politburo members play a role in the process of PSC formation. Thus, a Politburo member whose last appointment has been a demotion will probably not be considered for PSC promotion. This was the case of Wang Lequan, party secretary of Xinjiang, in 2010 (demoted and later retired at 67). Based on this precedent, Zhang Chunxian and Sun Chunlan have both been demoted and thus shouldn’t be considered for PSC promotion. Sun Zhengcai, the former party secretary of Chongqing, is under investigation for corruption and has been expelled from the party, so he won’t be taken into account either.

Seventh, a less noticed precedent is the promotion of the Shanghai party secretary (already present on the Politburo) to the PSC. Huang Ju in 2002, Xi Jinping in 2007, Yu Zhengsheng in 2012 have been promoted to the PSC once they finished their Shanghai tenure. Since Jiang Zemin in 1989, every Shanghai party chief has made it to the PSC, with the exception of Chen Liangyu, jailed for corruption (whose place in Shanghai was taken, for only 7 months, by Xi).

This pattern is a consequence of the formation of Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai clique, in the 1990s. After this, the continuation can be explained by the importance of networks in Chinese politics. PSC members have an important role in selecting future members. If one retiring member has been active in Shanghai and has worked with the current party chief, with whom he has remained on good terms, odds are that he will lobby for this person. This creates a self-perpetuating branch of Shanghai party leaders.

The current party secretary, Han Zheng, has worked with both Xi Jinping and Yu Zhengsheng (his direct boss for 5 years). Either of them could lobby for Han. There is another important clue: over the past 5 years, only five provincial party chiefs, out of a total of 31, have maintained their position since the last congress (Han Zheng, Hu Chunhua, You Quan, Wang Dongming, Peng Qinghua). Based on the precedent of promoting the Shanghai party chief, if either Xi or the party leadership wanted to keep Han out of the PSC, he could have simply been replaced by somebody else. But Han seems to be a survivor. Based on this precedent, we should reserve one PSC seat for Han Zheng.

The perpetuation of this precedent will also come in handy for Xi in 2022. Han’s place will probably be taken by Ying Yong, the mayor of Shanghai, who is a Xi ally with a meteoric rise over the past 5 years. If the precedent holds at this congress, then Ying Yong should have one reserved PSC seat in 2022, thus ensuring the presence on the PSC of another Xi ally, once he retires.

Eighth, over the past 15 years, the head of the Central Propaganda Department has joined the PSC, once becoming chairman of the Central Guidance Commission for Building Spiritual Civilization (propaganda chief – Li Changchun in 2002 and Liu Yunshan in 2012). But here comes the catch: when the number of PSC seats was reduced in 2012, from 9 to 7, two posts were out: vice president and secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (the internal security tsar). This worked in 2012. But, if the party will have to groom a future president, this arrangement won’t work. The next vice president should become a PSC member. If so, either he also inherits the role of propaganda chief (which would normally go to current Politburo member Liu Qibao) or somebody is kicked out of the PSC. The chiefs of the two assemblies seem too important to suffer this fate. So does the anti-corruption tsar.

The normal decision would thus be to downgrade the propaganda chief to simple Politburo membership. This was the case the last time the PSC had 7 members, in 1992-2002. So while this precedent of a PSC seat for the propaganda chief might be broken, the situation will return to a previous precedent, as in the ’90s.

Another possibility is that the vice president, while still being groomed for taking over in 2022, remains a simple Politburo member, in order to diminish his future influence. In this situation, the future 2022 premier would now become second-ranking vice premier, remaining a simple Politburo member himself, like Wen Jiabao in 1998-2003, who was fourth-ranked vice premier. But this would be quite a departure from the normal process of grooming the party general secretary.

While these eight precedents are not written rules, meaning they can be broken, they sum up the experience of the last four party congresses. Based on these precedents, in the final article of this series, we will try to project the composition of the next Politburo Standing Committee after the upcoming 19th Party Congress.

Andrei Lungu is president of The Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP). This is the third article in a four-part series about China’s political system and the 19th Party Congress. Read the first and second parts.