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Political Reshuffle in China

Lawyers and Economists Replace the Engineers


Lawyers and Economists Replace the Engineers


In preparation for the selection of China's fifth-generation leadership, set to take place two years from now, a reshuffling of positions, from the provincial level up to the central government, is already underway.



Lawyers and Economists Replace the Engineers

By Shu-ren Koo
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 439 )

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is set to select its fifth-generation leadership at the Eighteenth National People's Congress in 2012. This will mark the largest single senior leadership succession in CCP history, and the first truly meaningful generational changing of the guard. From now through 2012, all political developments in the central government will revolve around succession arrangements, and a smooth succession will demonstrate that the CCP's transfer-of-power system has become more mature.

Since the mid-1990s the CCP leadership has abided by the established practice of retirement at the age of 68. Based on this standard, 14 of the 25 current members of the Politburo will have to step down, including seven of nine Politburo Standing Committee members. The two sole remaining members will be Hu Jintao's successor Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang.

Promotions to the Politburo will create openings further down at the provincial level, and in anticipation of this, a major reshuffling among the 31 provincial committee secretaries is expected over the next two and one-half years to bring in new blood and groom new leaders. Personnel shakeups on the local level in recent months are closely tied to these arrangements.

Professor Kou Chien-wen of the National Chengchi University Political Science Department in Taiwan, a keen observer of the CCP's elite politics and succession structure, notes that in addition to its collective impact on the movement of over one hundred central and local government officials, the Eighteenth National People's Congress marks the first true generational handover not personally designated by a strongman. The accessions of both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were overseen by Deng Xiaoping, and it was not until Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang that the succession system truly went into effect, employing such broad-based mechanisms as party member opinion surveys and job performance evaluations.

Wang Qishan: the Major Successor to Watch

As far as selection of successors is concerned, since the mid-1990s nearly all the members of the Politburo Standing Committee have been regular Politburo members. With the exception of such supreme leadership successors as Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, promotions of more than one level have been quite rare.

Based on these precedents, if no additional members are selected to the Politburo over the next two years, the Politburo Standing Committee membership will be formed from among the 11 current Politburo members that have not reached retirement age. Taking the selection of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang out of the equation as foregone conclusions, the remaining nine members will contend for the other seven Standing Committee positions.

In Kou Chien-wen's estimation, Wang Qishan, the current vice premier of the State Council, is the most obvious candidate among the nine in view of his expertise in finance and economics and his experience handling local crises and international affairs. China's top strategic economic negotiator with the United States, Wang has the international experience Li Keqiang lacks, and is thus highly likely to move up to State Council standing vice premier. "Wang Qishan will be one of the most important CCP leaders in the first five years of the post-Hu Jintao era," opines Kou.

Other candidates, like Li Yuanchao, who distinguished himself with the successful promotion of Jiangsu's economic development, Zhang Gaoli, who contributed similarly to Tianjin, and Yu Zhengsheng, who helped boost the economies of Qingdao and Hubei, are also expected to move up in rank without incident during the succession.

The most likely candidate to be passed over is State Council vice premier Zhang Dejiang, whose actions hiding the SARS outbreak while serving as secretary of the Guangdong Provincial Committee triggered a crisis situation.

Bo Xilai, former Minister of Commerce and current secretary of the Chongqing Municipal Party Committee, has made a big show of his recent efforts to crack down on organized crime, to prove his mettle in a strong push to make the Politburo Standing Committee short list.

Social Scientists Assume Positions of Authority

An additional aspect worth observing is how the educational backgrounds of potential successors point to the likely future direction of CCP policy.

The third and fourth generation of CCP central government leadership headed by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, respectively, consisted almost exclusively of engineers by trade, reflecting the demand for economic development at the time. Following 30 years of opening and reform, with economic development having reached a certain level, such systemic issues as the political, economic, social and legal structures have become increasingly complex, emerging at the forefront to demand solutions from social scientists.

Consequently, the current crew of successors headed by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang is composed largely of individuals with backgrounds in such fields as economics, finance and law. People with social science backgrounds are increasingly prevalent among officials at the provincial level, reflecting the demands of the new era and indicating the shift in CCP policy to focus on the resolution of social issues and establishment of administrative and policy structures.

A smooth generational succession at the Eighteenth National People's Congress would send an important signal to the West and to Taiwan.

According to Yang Kai-huang, professor of public affairs at Ming Chuan University in Taipei, given that China is set to become the world's second-largest economy this year, if on the political level it can establish a unique "China model" separate from the democratic electoral system of the West, and prove its viability, "the value of Taiwan's democratic experience to China will diminish accordingly."

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman