INSIDE THE BLACK BOX: A CLOSE LOOK AT CHINA’S POWER TRANSITION

By Michael Tsai
Staff Writer

The election of a new national leader always ushers in a flurry of media attention and social media activity in the form of opinionated rants, political jokes, and partisan mudslinging. Nowhere else is this phenomenon more apparent than in the highly polarized political environment of the United States. This is a result of both the level of media freedom that the United States enjoys and the American democratic system: a two-stage election process with primaries that allow for more publicity. Media institutions across the world, compounded with the far reaching influence of American culture and the United States’ status as a global leader, were anxiously awaiting the outcome of the United States presidential election on November 6, 2012. In the aftermath of President Obama’s reelection, global media outlets turned their attention back their usual coverage.

By no means did the media overlook the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. It would also be incorrect to say that media were not allowed to report on the event. After all, an unprecedented number of foreign correspondents were granted access to the Great Hall of the People to observe the plenary sessions. The lack of transparency on China’s leadership transition can be attributed to the structure of the Middle Kingdom’s modern political institutions. Every five years, the Communist Party of China convenes in Beijing to hold a Party Congress attended by over 2,000 representatives from across the nation. These delegates are, of course, members of the Communist Party, and usually hold significant leadership roles within their respective provinces. The Party Congress elects a Central Committee of over 200 members that meets once a year to discuss and draft policies. From the Central Committee, the 25 most senior Party members form the Politburo, of which up to nine sit on the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the highest decision making organ in China. Members of the PSC hold immense power in China’s government, rendering all other policy organs, including the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress, as somewhat irrelevant. The entire election process is extremely opaque, as current or former Party leaders handpick candidates for many top-level positions. Any voting process only serves to ratify predetermined decisions. Thus, the media is left with minimal information to report on.

The black box nature of the Chinese government is unique given the widespread embrace of democracy in most advanced economies today. Although officials remain tight-lipped, outsiders still have other channels to speculate about the inner workings of government. A few important facts are apparent. First, the PSC always has an odd number of members to facilitate decision-making in the event of differences in opinion. Second, the same individual holds the three top positions in the Chinese government – President of China, General Secretary of the Communist Party, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission – simultaneously. Although not written into law, this has been common practice since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident in order to prevent a split in the government during emergency situations. Lastly, a typical term for the head of government is ten years. President Hu Jintao served from 2002 to 2012, when a new generation of leadership was to be ushered in.

Leading up to the November 2012 Party Congress, speculation was rife on who would form China’s next generation of leadership. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, elected to the PSC at the Party Congress of 2007, were expected to inherit the roles of General Secretary of the Communist Party and Premier of the State Council, respectively. However, little else could be foreseen regarding the final makeup of the new leadership, not even the numerical makeup of the new PSC. Traditionally, the slate is chosen by the top leadership, which the Central Committee simply ratifies. Although formally retired, influential leaders from the past, such as Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, may have a large say in selecting the candidates.

This time around, two potential candidates have drawn attention from foreign media. They are Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao, reformists who had consistently displayed interest in improving government in China. Wang had served as the Communist Party Chief of Guangdong Province, one of the most important regional leadership roles in the Chinese government. In Guangdong, Wang was especially effective at instituting market-based economic reforms and introducing local-level elections. On the other hand, Li Yuanchao had been involved in the central government as director of the Communist Party Organization Department. He had strongly advocated for inner-party democracy and tougher measures against corruption. Foreign and domestic observers hoped that the two would be catalysts for China to address issues of human rights and democracy in the future – topics that had been historically sensitive within Chinese politics.

At the conclusion of the weeklong Party Congress on November 15, 2012, Xi Jinping led the new-look PSC out onto the red carpet at the Great Hall of the People. Greeting a mass of correspondents from around the world, Xi introduced himself as the new General Secretary of the Communist Party before announcing the next generation of Chinese leadership:

Xi Jinping (习近平), General Secretary of Communist Party
Li Keqiang (李克强), Premier of the State Council
Zhang Dejiang (张德江), Head of National People’s Congress
Yu Zhengsheng (俞正声), Head of Chinese People’s Consultative Conference
Liu Yunshan (刘云山), Head of Propaganda Department
Wang Qishan (王岐山), Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection
Zhang Gaoli (张高丽), Executive Vice Premier

Trimmed from nine to seven members, the new PSC does not include Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao, the two reformists that many in the public had been hoping for. Instead, China revealed a more conservative leadership consisting mainly of protégés of former leader Jiang Zemin. Wang Qishan, the most reform-minded individual of the group, is tasked with combating corruption – a problem identified by Xi Jinping and former General Secretary Hu Jintao as the largest threat to the Party’s survival. Economic progress is also at the forefront of the new PSC’s policy platform. Li Keqiang has been strongly advocating for allowing the private sector to invest in large, inefficient state-owned enterprises such as railways.

The smaller PSC will allow for more decisive leadership. With voices from both outside and inside Chinese political circles calling for democratic reform, China’s top leadership is still cautiously approaching any kind of change in its political organization. However, it is worth taking note that the makeup of the new PSC may signal a calculated step towards – rather than a move away from – reform. Aside from Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, the other five members of the current PSC will reach the customary retirement age of 68 by the next Party Congress in five years. When they step down, the likes of Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao could have a good shot at being named to a more reform-oriented PSC. For now, the Chinese government’s priority remains to preserve one-party rule and the stability of the Communist Party.

Photo by Dainis Matisons

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