Rachel Lu

S-election Watch 2012: Who’s on First in China’s Politburo?

Elections are so 20th-Century. Tea Leaf Nation is pleased to introduce its coverage of the 2012 Leadership S-election in China, which will take place in the second half of 2012. Move over President Obama, the S-election of the members of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo is where true political drama takes place in the 21st Century.

You say all the Chinese leaders look exactly the same? You are not alone. No one can tell them apart. Even the New York Times published the wrong photo of a leader to whom they devoted an entire article.

You say you can’t remember these men’s names? We will try to assign nicknames to each of the main characters — if nicknames are good enough for former U.S. President “Dubya,” they are good enough for us.

You say you don’t know what the StanComm of the Politburo does? Well, it pretty much runs China.

Credit: Artist - Tang Zhigang / Source: CL2000.com

For addicts of Huffpo and Politico, political life in China may seem like a serene pond in a Suzhou garden by comparison. No rancorous debates. No attack ads. No hanging chads. No ballots. No problem.

Beneath that calm, harmonious surface however lies a hidden world of power politics and intrigue. Average Chinese people may not get to vote, but they are still interested in gossiping about the men who will govern them for the next ten years. When the last S-election happened in 2002, Mark Zuckerberg still lived in a Harvard dorm and Netscape was still around; but this time around, the gift of social media has been unwrapped for the Chinese people, and they are using it.

On China’s homegrown versions of Twitter, netizens are talking politics. The names of current leaders and several top candidates for the StanComm are not searchable on the microblogging platforms, but with the help of some coded search terms, there are plenty of tea leaves to be read.

In the S-election 2012 coverage, Tea Leaf Nation aims to bring you netizens’ comments directly from the microblogs on China’s future leaders. Without further ado, here are the three most talked-about contenders in S-election 2012, along with some coded references that netizens usually use (searches for these particular terms have not yet been banned by censors).

The Heir Apparent – Vice President Xi Jinping is a “princeling” whose father had the privilege of both fighting alongside, and being purged by, Mao. He inherited military ties from his father and worked in the military for a few years in the early 1980’s before minting his own credentials as a governor of wealthy coastal provinces Fujian and Zhejiang. Popular coded reference: 习总 (CEO Xi)

The Red Prince – Governor Bo Xilai of Chongqing Municipality is also a princeling and has been pegged as a rising star ever since his days as the Minister of Commerce. A shrewd opportunist and ironfisted executive, Bo initiated the “Sing Red” campaign in Chongqing that brought back memories of the Cultural Revolution to many. Popular coded reference: 薄督 (Governor Bo) or 不厚书记 (Secretary Bu Hou)

The New Hope – Governor Wang Yang of Guangdong Province has repeatedly made gestures that appeal to liberals. Rightly or not, many are hanging their hopes for further political reforms on him. Wang is not a princeling, but the word on the street is that current President Hu and Premier Wen have got his back. Popular coded reference: 汪督 (Governor Wang)

 Please stay tuned for our next installment: The Inscrutable Heir Apparent.


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Rachel Lu

Rachel Lu is a co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation. Rachel traces her ancestry to Southern China. She spent much of her childhood memorizing Chinese poetry. After long stints in New York, New Haven and Cambridge, she has returned to China to bear witness to its great transformation. She is currently based in China.
  • Jason

    A prediction:

    The next PSC will be comprised of:

    The two heirs apparent:

    Xi Jinping
    Li Keqiang

    The four gimmes:

    Wang Qishan
    Li Yuanchao
    Liu Yuanshan
    Zhang Dejiang


    Ling Jihua (successfully negotiated by Hu)
    Meng Jianzhu (security competency and Jiang Zemin ties) and
    Liu Yandong (seniority, all around strong connections, and hey, she’s a woman)

    Wang Yang will take a senior position on the State Council and five years latter have an excellent chance of making it (provided he soothes the feathers he has ruffled).

    Bo Xilai might also be given a nice consolation prize, but he’s too old to have a shot at a second chance. Suggestions that serious intraparty unrest will result from his exclusion will be proven false.

    If I made an error, it is most likely predicting the exclusion of Zhang Gaoli, but I’m predicting that the balance of competencies will win out over the balance of political influence to his detriment (Meng is needed for his security competency, and that satisfies the need for one of Jiang’s boys).

    Even though he is technically young enough to continue, I predict that Yu Zhengsheng rides off into the sunset. (another potential source of error).

    If these predictions are even mostly right, it creates an interesting situation for 2017. Li Keqiang , Li Yuanchao and Ling Jihua would all be eligible to remain on the PSC (two of them through 2027!) If Wang Yang joins them that leaves four members of Hu’s clique to just one princeling (Xi). If the princelings and Hu’s supporters have really organized into strong, stable cliques, this could be balanced out by giving princelings at least three of the remaining slots. Most likely this does not happen. Designations like Princeling and Tuanpai are designed to make Sinology comprehensible to us Westerners, and not necessarily reflections of reality. As a result, the Heirs of Hu take firm control of the party (even though it is technically presided over by a princeling). As a consolation prize, the princelings keep their ill-gotten fortunes and continue to grow them with favorable “cake growing” governmental policies pushed by their former rivals.