Analyzing the past 20 years of Chinese politics, we can identify eight precedents that seemed to have played a central role in the process of forming the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of power in the Chinese Communist Party.
Based on these eight precedents, the Politburo Standing Committee after the 19th Congress should have seven seats. Two will be filled by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. Another will be filled by Han Zheng. Two more seats will go to Chen Min’er and Hu Chunhua. The most probable outcome, as already discussed, is that Chen Min’er will become vice president and first-ranked secretary of the party’s central secretariat, while Hu Chunhua will become vice premier.
This leaves two more seats and three clear candidates: Liu Qibao, Li Yuanchao, Li Zhanshu. Another two candidates should be considered: Wang Yang (who, like Li Yuanchao, has two Politburo terms) and Wang Qishan (already on the PSC).
One precedent, the last regarding the propaganda chief, will probably be broken, because of the 2012 reduction of PSC seats. Thus, Liu Qibao will remain a Politburo member after being promoted to propaganda chief.
Under normal precedent conditions, there are two candidates for two seats: Li Zhanshu and Li Yuanchao. If the formation of the 19th PSC will follow precedent, then the next Politburo Standing Committee will be composed of:
- Xi Jinping, General Secretary and President
- Li Keqiang, Premier
- Han Zheng, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC)
- Li Yuanchao, Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)
- Chen Min’er, First-ranked Secretary of the Secretariat and Vice President
- Li Zhanshu, Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI)
- Hu Chunhua, First-ranked Vice Premier
The exact titles of the seven might differ, with a possible permutation between Chen Min’er and Hu Chunhua. Nonetheless, this is what should be expected based on precedent. But precedent is not perfect and it might be broken. This is why we should further analyze the candidacies of Wang Yang and Wang Qishan.
In the case of Wang Yang, his main competitor is Li Yuanchao. Both are considered part of the Youth League faction, being allies of Hu Jintao. Both served on the Politburo starting in 2007. Both hold state positions (vice president and vice premier). As a former head of the organization department, Li Yuanchao should eventually reach the PSC and this is his last chance. On the other hand, Wang Yang could still remain second-ranked vice premier and reach the PSC in 2022, as vice premier. But it’s possible that Li Yuanchao, who is 67, might be forced to retire or to remain on the Politburo in order to facilitate Wang’s promotion. What would justify this promotion is the fact that retirement is based not only on the 68 retirement precedent, but also on generations.
The traditional argument for the 67 up, 68 down “rule” begins by noting that, in 2002, Li Ruihuan retired at 68, thus setting the precedent. But there was somebody else who retired in 2002 who seems to have been forgotten: Li Tieying. He retired in 2002 at 66, after three Politburo terms. Why? It might have been simple behind-the-scenes political machinations, the go-to explanation in Chinese politics. But there might be a better reason. In 2002, all Politburo members, with the exception of PSC members, were newcomers to this body. Everybody from the third-generation was pensioned. Li Tieying, thanks to his early rise in ranks, straddled the line between third and fourth generations. The point of retirement isn’t just to prevent old people from serving in the party leadership, but to facilitate the promotion of younger cadres and prevent stagnation, with the same faces over and over. Jiang Zemin’s explanation in 2002 for Li Ruihuan’s retirement wasn’t that he was too old. It was that the entire third-generation, which included Li Ruihuan and Li Tieying, should retire, to make way for the fourth-generation.
According to retirement age precedent, Wang Yang should remain on the Politburo for four terms, longer than Xi Jinping. While fully part of the fifth-generation, he would serve for five more years with the sixth-generation. If the same generational retirement should happen in 2022, then maybe Wang Yang (who will be the same age with Li Keqiang, 67, who is normally expected to stand down) should retire as well. Li Tieying’s example proves that one can retire before reaching 68 even if you have three Politburo terms under your belt. But it would make more sense for Wang Yang to retire if he also served on the PSC, capping his party career.
Thus, if either the party leadership would like to reward Wang before his retirement, or if Xi would prefer to stack the 20th PSC with his allies, it might make sense to promote Wang instead of Li Yuanchao. Li could be given the role of vice chairman of the NPC, while Wang could be made chairman of the NPC or CPPCC. Wang, Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping would then retire in 2022, letting the sixth-generation take the spotlight.
In Wang Qishan’s case, the “67 up, 68 down” precedent isn’t as strong as imagined, as it has a history of only 10 years, making it a little easier to break. Wang will probably retire, but the possibility that he will remain on the PSC cannot be discarded for two reasons. The first is Xi’s normal desire to keep a friend and an effective member of his team active and the fact that Wang’s retirement has become a test of Xi’s power, Xi thus having a reason to push for Wang’s stay.
The other, more important, reason has to do with the party. If the anti-corruption campaign has been the party’s campaign and Wang has scored high marks, it makes a lot of sense to keep him for another five years. This important point further blurs the picture: if Wang stays, it might not be a sign of Xi’s power and his desire for another term, but a sign that the party wants the anti-corruption campaign to continue unabated.
Wang Qishan recently appeared at the celebration of 100 years since the birth of his father-in-law, former Vice Premier Yao Yilin, flanked by Li Keqiang and other PSC leaders, in a sign that Wang is supported not just by Xi, but by the party leadership. It wasn’t necessarily a sign connected to Guo Wengui’s attacks on Wang, but may be a signal to all party members that the leadership trusts Wang and wants him to remain active. As China is in the process of building a new, stronger anti-corruption body, as part of the NPC, it makes a lot of sense to keep Wang on board to lead this new body and shape its procedures. He is the perfect man for the job and this might make an exception from the 68 retirement precedent possible, keeping Wang as part of the fifth-generation.
A case of Wang Qishan and Li Yuanchao on the PSC, alongside Xi, Li, Han, Chen and Hu would be proof of a party decision, as it means that Li Zhanshu, a Xi ally, will never make it on the PSC. On the other hand, the clearest proof that Wang’s stay was Xi’s power play would be if the anti-corruption campaign further evolves in a fight against the current high-level balance of power, a possibility opened up by the recent cases of Sun Zhengcai and Fang Fenghui. If Wang remains on the PSC and takes on other Politburo members or important elders, like Zeng Qinghong, this would be clear proof of Xi taking full charge of the party and the anti-corruption campaign.
The most likely outcome of the PSC remains the precedent-based one, though it’s more likely that Wang Yang will replace Li Yuanchao in this lineup. Wang Qishan replacing either of them is a real possibility. But if the precedent-based lineup comes up at the end of the congress, it should be clear proof of a pattern of institutionalization and predictability of the party. It is also a sign that Xi is still operating in the name of the party, not bending the party to his desire.
This pattern of institutionalization and predictability can also be tested on the basis of Politburo composition. Based on precedent, the 25 members of the next Politburo should be: Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Han Zheng, Wang Yang, Chen Min’er, Li Zhanshu, Hu Chunhua, Li Yuanchao, Zhao Leji, Ding Xuexiang, Liu Qibao, Huang Kunming, Guo Shengkun, Wang Huning, Liu He, Sun Chunlan, Yang Jing, Cai Qi, Ying Yong, Li Hongzhong, Li Qiang, Zhang Guoqing/Ma Xingrui, Chen Quanguo, Xu Qiliang, Zhang Youxia/Fang Fenghui.
The purpose of this analysis isn’t just to predict the outcome of the 19th Party Congress, but to create an analytical framework that can be used to understand the real state of China’s political system. The differences between the outcome of the congress and the predictions made here can be analyzed to see what they portend for institutionalization. If, for example, the next PSC includes Xi, Li, Wang Qishan, Li Zhanshu, Zhao Leji, Chen Min’er and Hu Chunhua, then this is proof that Xi clearly dominates the system, but is still interested in preserving its basic mechanisms, like generational succession. If the PSC will be made up of Xi, Li, Wang Qishan, Li Zhanshu and Zhao Leji, then all bets are off and those who talked about Xi remaining in charge after 2022 finally have a concrete sign in this direction (though there would still be the possibility that future leaders are being groomed, but kept powerless).
The speculation before the 19th Party Congress is far more intense than usual. While before other congresses there was talk of secretive negotiations, the truth is that precedent largely shaped those debates. This time though, there is a real possibility that an important precedent might be broken, changing the entire equation. Nonetheless, with the exception of Wang Qishan’s seat (with Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao competing for it, Wang Yang having better chances), the other six seats have clear favorites.
The outcome of the congress, in the form of the composition of the Politburo and its Standing Committee will provide vital clues about the state of Chinese politics. These clues are far more valuable in the context of an analytical framework regarding the workings of the Chinese political system. In less than three weeks, we will find out how much this framework based on precedent has changed and what the next five or ten years might portend for Chinese politics.
Andrei Lungu is president of The Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP). This is the last article in a four-part series about China’s political system and the 19th Party Congress. Read the first, second, and third parts.