Predicting Chinese leadership changes is notoriously difficult, and China watchers have to rely on scraps of public information to gauge the chances of Chinese politicians to make it to the top. Whatever happens at the 20th Party Congress, the most fundamental rule of ‘China watching’ remains to focus on actions rather than words
The quinquennial National Party Congresses are among the most important events in China’s political system. They also allow China watchers all around the globe to engage in their favourite pastime: speculating about leadership changes within the Chinese Communist Party. As seasoned – and not so seasoned – analysts are sharing their predictions about the composition of the Standing Committee of the Politburo – the current seven-man-strong leadership group which decides the fate of the world’s second-largest economy – here’s a brief guide for businesses and hobby Pekinologists in the arcane art of tea leaf reading.
The National Party Congress (NPC) of the Chinese Communist Party – which takes place every five years – is undoubtedly the most important event in China’s political calendar. Unlike the National People’s Congress, which happens every year, the Party congress does not pass laws and regulations. It does, however, include speeches by senior Party leaders on the country’s policies.
What makes the NPC so important is that it selects the Communist Party’s leadership for the coming five-year period, thus determining who runs the country. And in a political system such as China’s, personnel is key.
On the surface, the selection of the top leadership is a democratic bottom-up process that starts well before the opening ceremony of the National Congress in October. Local Party committees select their delegates for the next level up, with provincial-level congresses deciding who to send to the national one in Beijing. In reality, however, candidate lists are determined by the Party’s powerful organisation department, currently headed by Xi-ally Chen Xi – himself a potential candidate for the Party’s highest governing body, the Standing Committee of the Politburo (PBSC).
During the National Congress, there will be further selections, including the membership of the Standing Committee. This – which includes the General Secretary – is the executive committee of the Politburo, which itself counts 25 members. Below the Politburo sits the CCP’s Central Committee (approx. 200 members), a sort of Party Parliament, that comprises the powerful Central Military Commission and the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection.
Just as with the nomination of NPC delegates, these selections are highly choreographed, with most candidates chosen by the top leadership well in advance. Yet how these posts are distributed remains a mystery even to the most seasoned China watchers.
Leadership structure of the CCP
Reading the tea leaves: A primer
Without unscripted interviews of Chinese leaders and their apparent ability to keep a poker face (which would put every professional card player to shame), China watchers have long had to rely on other methods to gauge who’s on their way up and who is on their way down. In the following paragraphs, we’ll introduce some of the concepts and sources analysts use to make predictions about the future leadership of the CCP.
First, there are two basic conventions which regulate the approximate number of PBSC members and the age limit for Party leaders. Yet none of these is written in stone. For example, during the Hu Jintao era, the PBSC had nine members. Under Xi, its number was reduced to seven, as it was during the second term of Jiang Zemin, Hu’s predecessor.
The age limit is similarly malleable. Generally, leaders who are older than 68 are set to retire, yet the then 69-year-old Wang Qishan was allowed to carry on as Vice President in 2017. The same exception could apply to some of the older current PBSC members such as Han Zheng (68-years-old) or Wang Yang (67-years-old).
These caveats notwithstanding, the convention would mean that at least four of the current seven PBSC members would have to retire by the end of the year. Premier Li Keqiang already announced at a press conference in March that he would step down as Premier, a move which almost certainly means his departure from the PBSC. The other two – Li Zhanshu and Han Zheng – are all past or close to the informal age limit. This means that in the absence of any significant promotion – e.g. Han Zheng taking over as Premier – they will almost certainly make way for younger candidates.
Current membership and age of the Politburo Standing Committee
So, who is going to replace the leavers? This is where the speculation begins. Without open candidacies or even public endorsements by current leaders, analysts must rely on other clues to estimate the promotion chances of Party officials. The most common indicators on which China watchers rely are: careers paths, affiliation and policy record.
Career paths, and especially the speed of promotions, are the most widely used marker for analysts to judge a Party official’s potential to make it to the top. The reason for this simple: it is the only indicator which is public and can be tracked unequivocally via open sources. It also helps that official newspapers like the People’s Daily serve as a CCP Hansard of sorts, publicising major appointments and personnel changes.
Some researchers and China-focused think tanks have therefore collected impressive databases on recent promotions. For example, MacroPolo’s feature “The Committee” covers leadership changes at both the provincial and ministerial levels. According to Ruihan Huang, also of MacroPolo, higher demand for work experience – preferably in multiple provinces – has become a distinctive feature of leadership selection under XI. While in 2002, 15 out of 25 Politburo members had worked outside of their home province, the number has increased to 20 in the current setting.
Cross-province promotions to regions struggling with socio-economic difficulties are generally a good indicator of a promising career. Li Keqiang, for example, served as Party Secretary in economically depressed Liaoning and Hebei. And former General Secretary Hu Jintao famously started his career in Tibet. Thus, the promotion of former governor of Guangdong Ma Xingrui to the post of the Party Secretary of Xinjiang makes him a likely candidate for the next Politburo.
While promotions are important, the right backing within the Party is even more critical. Affiliations, especially to Xi Jinping and other top leaders (including retired ones) is a sine-qua-non for making it into the PBSC. Yet proving such support is notoriously difficult. The easiest way is once again to look at the public record or open source databases like China Vitae, which shows the complete career path of more than 5000 Chinese officials. Affiliations of cadres who worked with current leaders like XI when he was governor in Zhejiang are probably the easiest to identify. For example, Chen Min’er – the current Party Secretary of Chongqing – worked with Xi Jinping during his time in that province in the early 2000s before being rewarded with two provincial Party Secretary jobs in less than a decade.
Yet besides these obvious links, dividing Party members into neatly distinguishable factions is nigh on impossible. Academic concepts, such as the widely cited one by Cheng Li – a researcher at Brookings Institution – which divides Chinese rulers into Princelings (the offspring of former leaders) and ‘Populists’ (mostly alumni of the CCP’s own Youth League) – are too broad and assume an intragroup support which is hard to verify.
The truth is that as much as personal ties and leadership backing matter, policy experience, administrative competence as well as corporatist and regional representation all play a role in the selection process, making it possible for ‘compromise candidates’ to rise to the top of the Party.
Policy record and educational background
Obviously, ideology and individual positions on policy play a much weaker role in a Communist regime than in a pluralist society. What’s more, Chinese policymakers tend to reveal their individual positions only after they’ve secured a top leadership post. Until then, they usually toe the party line.
However, there are several features which help gauge the career chances of a leader and which might also indicate whether he/she will adopt a more pragmatic or a rather ideological course in office. First, there’s the educational and professional background. The rise of techno-industrial groups such as the ‘aerospace clique’ – which refers to cadres with a background in aerospace engineering and related industries – shows that degrees and expertise matter for a successful political career – especially when it corresponds to China’s broader development strategy.
The same logic applies to the policy record – especially as most leaders have hands-on experience as Party secretaries or ministers. What matters is less about pure GDP growth – which has turned out to be rather inconclusive predictor for career advancement under Xi Jinping – but rather experience related to a specific policy agenda such as Common Prosperity or financial stability. Thus, the selection of Wang Qishan to the PBSC in 2012 and the promotion of Liu He to the post of Vice Premier in 2018 were most likely due to their expertise in financial markets and credit risk.
What about rumours?
Rumours are an unfortunate part of dealing with any political system, not only China. And social media now makes it possible to spread the most unfounded assertions around the globe in less than a day – as the recent ‘coup rumours’ have demonstrated only too clearly. Luckily, many professional China analysts and Beijing-based journalists were quick in debunking these allegations.
Their nearly unanimous reaction demonstrates an important point: when dealing with Chinese politics, rumours are best to be ignored. Such mistrust even applies to personal and anecdotical accounts from more trusted sources such as the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times or Party insiders-turned-dissidents like former Central Party School professor CAI Xia. The reason for this isn’t just an academic elitism favouring official primary sources over hearsay, it is also that rigorous research based on historical records (which obviously isn’t accessible for more recent events) has shown that most popular assumptions about Communist leadership politics are usually wrong. Given the generally short shelf life of both rumours and ‘scoops’ about personal rivalries, the safest best for China analysts is to stick to the advice: “Don’t listen to what people say, watch what they do”.
The CBBC View
We hope that this primer – although far from comprehensive – provides a few important markers that can help better understanding of Chinese politics and the selection process at the upcoming Party Congress. Even though predicting the final tally for the Chinese Politburo will always be a guessing game, knowing some of the key indicators for promotions within the CCP can provide important clues about the priorities of the Party’s top decision-makers (which goes well beyond the limited number of the PBSC) and future policy choices.
It also needs to be said that any composition of the Politburo and the PBSC will be – or at least will aspire to be – a faithful representation of the CCP’s own very diverse membership and their often conflicting interests. Being an organisation with more members than the population of the entire UK and no competitive election process means that any Politburo will always be a ‘team of rivals’ rather than a group of like-minded allies. When it comes to elite politics in the post-Mao CCP, stability trumps ideological purity.