Xi Jinping: Do Not Expect Political Reform From New Chinese Leadership

On the 16th of November, the Communist Party of Chinese concluded its 18th Party Congress, one that lasted ten days, during which a once-in-a decade CCP leadership transition took place. Everything went of in accordance with the plan, a new politburo of over 2000 party delegates was voted in, but most importantly, a new (reduced from 9) 7-man standing committee was voted by the politburo.  

Importantly, Chairman of the party Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao stepped down, as Xi Jinping and Le Keqiang took over their respective new positions, along with 5 new members, who each retain important portfolios of power. These 7 members will preside over China for the next 10 years, and make the most important policy decisions for the country, while also represent China internationally. Therefore, this leadership transition is important, and despite Beijing’s attempt to orchestrate this process as if it were the Beijing Opera, behind these curtains lie many factions and past leaders who bear true influence over the running of the Party.

The selection of these 7 members took place with zero transparency, and is effectively a horse trade among internal CCP factions, for what is at stake is control over the entire country. The new standing committee reflects that fact that the power and influence of former generations of leaders is very real. Jiang Zemin, 86-year-old former president of China, is said to lead the Shanghai faction, and four members are all believed to be his proteges: Chairman of the party, Xi Jinping; soon-to-be-named Chairman of the National People’s Congress Chairman Zhang Dejiang; Executive Secretary of the Central Committee Secretariat Liu Yunshan; and executive Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli. Meanwhile, departing president Hu Jintao represents the Communist Youth League faction, and Premier Le keqiang is believed to be one of Hu Jintao’s protégé. It appears that Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai faction gained the upper hand in this recent leadership re-shuffle.

Those hoping for political reform have the right to be disappointed. In 2007, during the 17th Party Congress, President Hu stated the need for “democracy within the party” and called for “mechanisms to prevent dictatorial policies of a minority of leaders.” When outgoing premier Wen addressed the Tianjin congress, he quoted Deng Xiaoping who in a 1980 address cited the following daunting obstacles to political and institutional liberalization: “bureaucracy, over-concentration of power, patriarchal methods, life tenure in leading posts and privileges of various kinds.” In fact it was due to this very concern that a retirement age for leaders and 10-year periods of rule were put in place. 

Yet the reality of the situation reveals that these mechanisms are not sufficient and that further changes are necessary. Hu has been unable to make any changes of this kind in the politics of the CCP. It is reported that Jiang and former premier Li Peng prevented Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang, both of whom have reform credentials, from entering the Standing committee. However, Hu’s decision to step down from chairmanship of the military commission (in addition to the standing committee) is an unprecedented one, and a sign of intent that he will at least exit with example.

Each of the previous four generations of leaders have had a major impact on China, as the party has led China to its present position. In a world full of new and evolving challenges, China faces considerable number of its own domestic challenges. It must fight growing socio-economic inequality and rampant corruption, while also guide the growth of its economy through various reforms that will empower the consumer and private business. Despite the back-door dealing and increasing patriarch nature of the CCP, the present general of leaders boast strong credentials, and in fact both Xi and Li hold Ph.d degrees from China’s top two universities.  

Over the next decade, it remains to be seen if the leaders will garner the internal will and party support for changes; as leaders such as Jiang Zemin fade with age, this is a possibility. The victory of Jiang’s Shanghai faction suggests that the CCP will prioritize economic reforms, which is good. Xi’s credentials come from Shanghai and the creation of the special economic zone Shenzhen, and Wang Qishan is known as China’s banking wizard. However, as the people of China are increasingly empowered both socially and economically (a direct result of the parties policies), the role of the party is being looked at with increasing scrutiny, as people want greater wealth and freedom in a society built around Confucian ideals of social harmony and equality. China’s history did not start in 1949, it instead dates back through thousands of years of violent dynastic feuds and upheaval; and the CCP will be well aware the mandate of heaven can be both earned and loosed.

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Dev Lewis

Outreach Associate at Gateway House ICGR. I write on geopolitics and foreign policy issues in Asia, keep a special eye on India-China relations.

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