How China’s new top personnel will impact policymaking in the next five years.
At the 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in October 2017, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping announced that China has entered a “new era” in establishing socialism with Chinese characteristics. The words “new” and “innovation” featured quite prominently in the text of his speech. Yet, in respect to the choice of personnel, we see quite the opposite. Cadre in their late 40s are no longer represented in the Politburo; the youngest member of its standing committee turned 60 this year. Against this background, how many new and innovative policies can we expect from the innermost circle of power in China’s political system?
Except for Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang, all other members in the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) are new to this exclusive club of seven, although all have extensive experience in policymaking. Who are these new players and what does their elevation mean in terms of policymaking for the next five years?
The Politburo Standing Committee:
The Inner Circle of Power in Chinese Politics
The members of the PBSC not only make decisions that impact how the party of 89 million members is governed, but also have the final word on the macro strategies for the country of 1.3 billion people. Different from Western political systems, in which the inner cabinet of the executive branch is the platform for strategic decision-making and compromise, the PBSC is a more exclusive club which brings together the people with those portfolios that are considered the most vital to keep the country on an even keel. The 25-person strong Politburo comprises the key personnel in party and state organs, as well as the military.
In the seven-member Standing Committee we find the following positions represented: Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Party, the formal No.1 in the CCP hierarchy, is at the same time the president of the PRC and commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army. The State Council, China’s executive, is represented by Li Keqiang, the prime minister, and it is most likely that the No. 7 on the new PBSC – Han Zheng – will serve as executive vice premier from March 2018 onwards. For the formal appointments of Li Zhanshu – who ranks third on the PBSC – as head of the national legislature, and the party’s No. 4, Wang Yang, as chair of the consultative conference, we also have to wait until these two bodies convene their annual plenary sessions next spring. Already confirmed are that Wang Huning – the No. 5 – attained the position of the executive secretary of the CCP secretariat, and that Zhao Leji – the No. 6 – succeeds Wang Qishan as head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).
As the highest decision-making body of the CCP, the PBSC clearly stands above all state organs. The wording in Xi’s speech at the 19th Party Congress makes it clear that a separation of party and state functions is no longer an option the party flirts with. To the contrary, the CCP is supposed to extend its presence and influence in all spheres, including companies and societal organizations.
The 19th Party Congress:
No Generational Transition in Sight
PBSCs are known from other communist regimes, most prominently the Soviet Union before it disintegrated. What we remember from the latter is that the PBSC in the late phase of the Soviet Union was filled with old gentlemen who lost touch with the latest developments in the world. When these “gerontocrats” made way for a young generation, it was already too late to bring the country back on course. In order to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union, the CCP recognized the need to keep the structures of the PBSC flexible and promote young leaders into the Politburo early on. Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader in the 1980s and early 1990s, urged that young talented politicians in their late 40s be promoted into the body. Based on this policy, at least two generations of top leaders were groomed for highest office, including Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, Xi Jinping, and Li Keqiang.
For the last two decades, this policy worked to the benefit of the CCP. There was a constant rejuvenation of top politicians, and the transitions between leadership generations in the highest offices went smoothly. Ten years ago, Xi and Li entered the Politburo Standing Committee aged 54 and 52, respectively. In the PBSC of the 19th Central Committee, however, Zhao Leji is the youngest member at 60 years old and there is no obvious leader in his early 50s or younger who might take over from Xi in five years’ time at the helm of the CCP. As such, it appears that the practice of elevating a person to become the heir apparent has come to an end. On the other hand, rumors prior to the 19th Party Congress that the PBSC is going to be dismantled turned out to be just that – rumors.
At least for now, the PBSC remains a symbol of collective leadership. And despite the extraordinary position of Xi – whose political standing and authority received a further boost by the elevation of his persona through the inclusion of Xi Jinping Thought in the CCP statute – it is not only he but the top seven of the Party hierarchy together, as well as the top policy advisers, that need to be closely watched for clues concerning policy changes.
The Five New Players:
Veteran Policymakers and Their Input for the New Era
At the Party Congress in October 2017, Xi announced the start of a new era and presented a vision for China up until the mid-21st century. According to the plan, from 2020 on, China will move through two phases of development to eventually become a strong nation by 2049. The goal for the centenary anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China has been defined for a long time, but Xi and the other six members of the PBSC need to present a clear roadmap and policy content for how to get there. It is an ambitious task and critical phase for the party, thus there are practical reasons that experience trumps the earlier rule of elevating rising political stars. All five of the new PBSC members bring along extensive policy experience and authority within the CCP. What initiative we can expect from the five who are new to the innermost circle depends on their formal position.
Listed according to their rank in the Party hierarchy, the five gentlemen are shortly presented here.
Li Zhanshu, born in 1950, has been a close confidant of Xi’s family for decades. Since 2012 he has served as Xi’s chief of staff. Prior to his transfer to Beijing, Li Zhanshu had gained a reputation as an effective administrator in poverty-stricken regions while holding the highest political position in four provinces (Hebei, Shaanxi, Heilongjiang, and Guizhou). If he is nominated as chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March 2018 as expected, this would strengthen the Party’s influence over China’s top legislative organ even further.
In his past position, Li was responsible for the information flow at the party headquarters and for regular communication with regional party leaders. The latter are at the same time the heads of the regional legislatures, providing him with excellent direct communication channels. Two major projects that Xi aims to push forward are his “rule by law” agenda, and the adjustment of intergovernmental fiscal relations. In both cases, Xi needs a person in the NPC who is able to rein in the provincial chiefs as both reform projects hit a critical nerve of subnational units. “Rule by law” is first of all an exercise to streamline government functions and might curtail the discretionary power of subnational governments further. Adjusting fiscal relations might create winners and losers and therefore any efforts in this regard would create strong opposition as well as desires for redistribution across localities.
Wang Yang, born in 1955, has served as one of the vice premiers of the State Council since 2013. He was in charge of Xi’s project to reduce poverty by 2020 and the economy. Prior to his transfer to the capital, he acted as Party secretary in Guangdong Province, where he enjoyed high popularity among the people and was known as an economic reformer. It is expected that he will become chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a body with mere advisory functions. In recent public speeches and newspaper articles he continues to promote market-oriented reforms with an international outlook. However, if he assumes the new position in 2018, there will be little room for him to push policies that would support this cause.
From the perspective of policymaking, the final three gentlemen are more important to look at.
Wang Huning, born in 1955, has a reputation as the CCP’s top thinker. After he left academia and his position as a professor of international relations behind in the late 1990s, he served as a policy advisor to three former presidents. He is said to be the key architect of Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents,” Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Outlook on Development,” and Xi’s “China Dream.” The extent to which Wang is trusted by Xi became clear when Wang was appointed director of the Office of the Comprehensively Deepening Reform Leading Small Group in early 2014. In this function he is supervising the implementation of the 2013 decision on an ambitious reform program. However, the directorship will most probably be transferred to another high-level cadre in the weeks to come.
Wang is known to be a classic strategy adviser, reserved in public and therefore, as far as the CCP top leadership is concerned, most trustworthy. In his new role as the executive secretary of the CCP Secretariat, he will no longer have the opportunity of working quietly behind the scenes. He will be in the spotlight. His work focus will be on ideology and propaganda work – in brief, controlling the hearts and minds of the cadres. At the moment he is already overseeing new propaganda activities to promote Xi though a nationwide propaganda campaign that was launched shortly after the Party Congress concluded. The concept of Xi Jinping Thought needs to be filled with more content and he is the one to filter what the content will be.
Zhao Leji, born in 1957, is the new head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. As such, he replaces Wang Qishan as the leader of the anti-corruption campaign. The latter is Xi’s instrument to enforce Party discipline and loyalty. Different from Wang Huning’s toolset of ideas, the tools of the CCDI are nationwide investigation rounds and tough punishments. As the youngest member of the Standing Committee, Zhao has the best chance to play a key role in Chinese politics beyond the next Party Congress in 2022. Previously head of the CCP organizational department, he has access to all career data and files of cadres. It is now in his hands to redefine the course and nature of the anti-corruption campaign. With the pilots on the system of the supervision committees on their way, he might be the one to oversee a more systematic and law-based supervision of offenses of both CCP members and non-members.
Han Zheng, born in 1954, has been serving as Party secretary of Shanghai since Xi Jinping left this position in 2012. Shortly after the Congress, he transferred to Beijing. In Shanghai, Han proved himself as effective administrator overseeing the work on the free trade zone pilot in the metropolis. From March 2018 onwards, he might use his experience and skills as Li Keqiang’s deputy in the State Council. However, we cannot expect many surprises or new impulses for economic reform and restructuring. He will most probably stick to the policies we saw in the Shanghai pilot zone, expanding their role out to more localities.
Looking Beyond the PBSC for Clues:
Top Advisers to Watch
PBSC members are first and foremost decision-makers. The development of scenarios and preparation of strategies lies in the hands of several high-ranking officials, often referred to as “staff officers.” They are most trusted by the inner circle of party leaders. Three of the key advisors working behind the scenes for years – Wang Huning (fundamental policy issues), Yang Jiechi (foreign policy), and Liu He (the economy, technology, and environment) – have been promoted to the Politburo or even its Standing Committee, further stressing their importance for the system.
Yang Jiechi, born in 1950, has been state councilor for foreign affairs since 2013. An expert on the United States, he has also had good working relations with Japan. His elevation to the PBSC indicates that he is poised to take over a highly visible public office and will have a strong mandate to interact with diplomats from these two countries. Making him one of the vice premiers for the portfolio of foreign policy is the obvious choice to make the best use of his talents and contacts. From 2007 until 2013 he served as minister of foreign affairs. In this capacity, he earned a name as significant strategy adviser in managing relations with the United States, and this qualification will be in high demand during the Trump administration. Yang belongs to the small group of Chinese diplomats who were sent abroad during the Cultural Revolution, studying in Bath and at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the early 1970s.
Liu He, born in 1952, is the director of the Office of the Central Financial and Economic Leading Small Group and also deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). In the 1990s Liu became one of China’s leading industrial and technology policy strategists. He initially studied at People’s University in Beijing, a university traditionally close to the government. After several years as an official in the State Planning Commission, Liu pursued further education in the United States. He earned a Master’s of Business Administration from Seton Hall University before earning a Master’s of Public Administration degree at the Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University. In 2008, Liu worked closely with Premier Wen Jiabao in developing measures to lessen the impact of the global financial crisis on the Chinese economy. He also is considered to be one of the masterminds behind the reform decision of the 18th CCP Central Committee in November 2013.
Chen Min’er, born in 1960, entered the wider Politburo this fall. As an expert on ideology, he has recently gained additional experience as provincial level Party Secretary, dealing with key policies relevant to achieve the first centennial goal of poverty eradication. In Guizhou Province he was chiefly dealing with poverty alleviation measures. With this portfolio and recent appearances on Chinese TV – contributing to the spread of Xi Jinping Thought – it seems he is being groomed for higher office. How high, we will only know five years from now at the 20th Party Congress.
Veteran Policymakers Shape the Transition Into a New Era
The Party Congress in October 2017 served as a showcase for Xi’s vision of China in the “new era.” In order to complement this vision with content, he is supported by veteran policymakers, who bring along the political weight to oppose any countermeasures from local governments. As such, we cannot expect a major policy shift at the beginning of Xi’s second term, as long as no major external crisis unfolds. Instead we will witness an even stronger turn toward control mechanisms – especially ones to eventually overcome local opposition to streamlining government functions and fiscal reforms.
One final note on leaders, their age, and policymaking. We should not be worried about the age of the top personnel in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP has proven to have well-established mechanisms within the party to observe and identify important trends in technological advancements and markets. Among the top personnel there is no one who would doubt the need to reform and upgrade. Digitization will be a top, cross-cutting priority that is fully supported by all PBSC members. Big data might bring them closer to fulfill the age-old wish to have accurate figures of the socio-economic development in a vast country of more than 1.3 billion peopl