China's New Leadership: People and Priorities

Alice Miller sketched the events of China's most recent leadership transition by trying to answer a key question for the audience: what are the implications of China's most recent Party Congress? In November, the world saw the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in which seven of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee were retired in a closed-doors handover to new leadership. What can we expect from the new leadership?

Miller began by addressing the fact that the 18th Party Congress was held later than expected. Many analysts suspect this is due to the various scandals involving the party's upper level leadership, from the Bo Xilai affair to the Ferrari crash involving the son of Hu Jintao's right hand man, Ling Jihua. This may have delayed, but did not stop, the congress from happening within the imprecise timeframe required by Party rules.  Various groups within the leadership sought to replace retiring members with their preferred candidates.  Miller critiques the shortcomings of many analyses of leadership succession that emphasize factional ties and perceived potentially destabilizing elite struggles in the run-up to the recent transition.  Miller provided a detailed account of each of the members of the uppermost political elite, discussing their complex networks of relationships. 

Her analysis emphasized, however, the relatively institutionalized and oligarchical character of the leadership succession.  She noted the established norm that leaders must retire at age 69.  She pointed to the top elite’s division into 5-year generational cohorts and a pattern of appointment to the Politburo Standing Committee that closely tracked seniority. She also stressed that members of the Standing Committee represent each of the major functional areas of the Chinese Party and state structures.

The dilemmas facing China’s new leaders are too many to list – including pollution, social unrest, ethnic disputes, contested borders, economic inequality, how to handle political critics such as the artist and activist Ai Weiwei. But one overarching problem is policy stagnation, which seemed to mark the later years of the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao leadership. Can Xi Jinping and his administration  be sufficiently bold and innovative and adapt to deal with the array of pressing issues China faces? This is a question that cannot yet be answered.

One member of the audience asked about the extent to which the background of each party member affects his or her prospects for promotion. Miller responded by pointing to Wen Jiabao's political rise. Wen was a geologist and this had led him to travel to most of China's county-level divisions, of which there are more than 2000. This experience gave him a view into the lives of people in remarkably different parts of China that affected his priorities once he rose to the position of China’s premier. Nearer the other end of China’s elite political spectrum, retiring Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang was closely associated with and apparently sympathetic to the interests of China’s oil industry and large state-owned oil companies.

Alice Miller is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and visiting associate professor of Political Science at Stanford University. She is also a senior lecturer in the department of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. She is an editor and contributor for the China Leadership Monitor and is in the process of writing a new book tentatively titled The Evolution of Chinese Grand Strategy, 1550-Present. She has also authored numerous articles, chapters, is the co-author with Richard Wich of Becoming Asia: Change and Continuity in Asian International Relations Since World War II (Stanford University Press, 2011) and the author of Science and Dissent in Post-Mao China: The Politics of Knowledge (University of Washington Press, 1996). This event was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Contemporary China (CSCC) at the University of Pennsylvania.

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