China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition is set to begin this week at the 18th Communist Party Congress.The result is a foregone conclusion: news outlets have known for months that Xi Jinping is to succeed Hu Jintao as president of China, while Li Keqiang will be taking the reins from Wen Jiabao as premier. The predetermined outcome has become something of a joke on Chinese social media. Television host Li Jiajia ( @李佳佳Audrey) wrote sarcastically on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, “Only two days before November 6, and Americans still don’t know who their next president will be. So weak!”
Chinese social media users reacting to Li’s tweet also jokingly touted their country’s “superior system.” @绿色之疯 wrote on Weibo, “Ha ha, the whole world knows who our new leaders will be. That’s what I call open and transparent.”
But in fact, there are things about the power handoff the world does not know. Xi and Li may soon become the most powerful men in China, but they are only two people on a seven-member body known as the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). Foreign and overseas Chinese media outlets have worked themselves into a frenzy speculating about the composition of China’s highest governing organization. No two lists of possible line-ups look exactly the same. In the past week, the Financial Times and South China Morning Post released conflicting projections, both citing inside information from well-placed sources. What we have here is a good, old-fashioned power struggle.
While Xi and Li will soon sit pretty on their thrones, the game of musical chairs continues for the rest of the seats on the Standing Committee. Newspaper profiles often try to assign each of the remaining candidates a label, such as conservative, right reformist, “princeling” (family members of Communist revolutionaries), tuanpai (Hu Jintao’s clique) or members of the Shanghai clique (Jiang Zemin’s posse). But most of the current crop of PSC candidates are not so easy to define — their personal backgrounds and experiences often stubbornly refuse to stay in one box and their political views are hard to pin down. The closest analogy in U.S. politics may be the nomination process for justices on the Supreme Court, when candidates often shy away from revealing too much about his or her political beliefs or possible courses of action once in office; instead, observers are left to read the tea leaves from their backgrounds and experiences.
Here are the eight candidates for the remaining five spots on the PSC after Xi and Li take their anticipated seats, each handicapped by the odds:
Zhang Dejiang (The Firefighter) — 90%: Although one of the Party’s favorite firefighters, Mr. Zhang in fact botched the handling of some of the worst public-relations disasters in China in recent memory, such as the fatal delays in local authorities’ reporting of the SARS outbreak in Guangdong during his reign and the widely-criticized rescue efforts in the Wenzhou train collision when he was appointed to lead the rescue operation. It spoke volumes about his political standing when he was tapped to take over the ousted Bo Xilai’s post in Chongqing and handle the unsightly aftermath, a clear sign that he is highly trusted by the current leadership, and likely to be rewarded with a promotion to the PSC.
Wang Qishan (The Financial Tsar) — 90%: Mr. Wang is a “princeling” by dint of his marriage into a conservative old-guard family. But back in the 1980s, he was also co-editor of a book series, ultimately banned, that advocated openness and reforms. Wang is the go-to man for financial and banking policy-making at the State Council and has led several strategic dialogues with the United States.
Li Yuanchao (The System Builder) — 80%: Mr. Li was born into the family of a high Communist Party official. He was reportedly sympathetic to protesting students in the 1989 Tiananmen uprising, and he languished as a mid-level cadre in the 1990s as a result. He owed his rise in the early 2000s to the patronage of current president Hu Jintao and built a good reputation as the party boss in Jiangsu. As the man in charge of Communist Party cadre management over the past five years, Mr. Li is thought to have reformed the Party’s personnel system to focus on accountability.
Yu Zhengsheng (The Old Princeling) — 50%: Mr. Yu has quite a colorful family background: his father, a senior Communist Party official, was once romantically attached to Jiang Qing, years before she became Mao’s wife, and his older brother, a bureau chief of China’s equivalent of the CIA, defected to the United States in the 1980s and was (presumably) assassinated for treason. He is currently the party boss in Shanghai, a well-managed economic hub with relatively tight media controls. At 67, Mr. Yu is the oldest contender for the PSC.
Liu Yunshan (The Propagandaist) — 50%: Mr. Liu has worked at the Propaganda Department since the early 1990′s, rising gradually through the ranks. Since he became the department head in 2002, media control and Internet censorship have tightened.
Wang Yang (The Potential Reformer) — 50%: Mr. Wang is probably best known to grassroots Chinese as a rival to the now-disgraced Bo Xilai, whether such rivalry was real or imagined. Among senior Chinese leaders, he is relatively vocal about the need for further liberal reforms. At 57, Wang’s relatively young age may be a strike against him. If he does not make it to the PSC this time, he has another shot in five years, when some PSC seats may be up for grabs again when other members bump up against the age ceiling of 68.
Zhang Gaoli (Mr. Lucky) — 50%: Mr. Zhang’s track record does not stand out among the contenders. He has served as the party boss in Shenzhen, Tianjin and Shandong, and maintained a relatively low-key and bureaucratic working style. It is thought that Mr. Zhang, from relatively humble backgrounds, owes his rise to eminence to the patronage of former president Jiang Zemin.
Liu Yandong (The Token Female) — 20%: Ms. Liu is the dark mare of the PSC race. She is thought to be acceptable to all sides as the daughter of a senior revolutionary leader as well as a close supporter of President Hu Jintao. What she has in personal connections, however, probably will not be enough to make up for her lack of hands-on experience governing a major province or handling thorny matters at a key central ministry.
Those hoping for a “reformist” line-up may be praying for the elevation of Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang at the expense of Liu Yunshan and Yu Zhengsheng, but it is hard to determine exactly what the candidates believe in and how they will behave on the PSC.