Politburo Possibilities: The Contenders for China’s New Generation of Leaders

Posted: July 2, 2012 in Politics
Tags: , , ,

This fall, the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 18th Party Congress and select a new generation of leaders who will face some of the greatest challenges seen yet in the PRC’s 63 years. Inflation is growing, wealth inequality is widening, the population is aging, the environment is degrading, the new-generation of internet-savvy youth is becoming more cynical, and the threat of a major economic crisis hangs over everything – threatening to unravel the “Beijing Consensus” of economic growth in exchange for authoritarianism. Hu Jintao has led for the past decade with a “stability at all costs” attitude – which in many ways has allowed these problems to fester. The question now is whether these problems will be addressed with greater authoritarianism or greater democracy.

The most important group to focus on in the leadership turnover is the nine-man Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) – which is part of the greater 25-man Politburo. These nine men (and they’ve always been men) have the lion’s share of control in how China is governed. This post will break down who the contenders are for the PBSC and how they may proceed in shaping China.

(Patrick Covanec has done a great primer on the mechanics of exactly how the turnover process will work – which I highly recommend)

For the past year there’s been a lot of talk about Wang Yang’s “Guangdong Model” vs. Bo Xilai’s “Chongqing Model.” The Guangdong model uses democratic reform and greater freedoms to address the CCP’s growing legitimacy crisis, while the “Chongqing Model” uses a strong-authoritarian hand to crackdown on corruption and organized crime while instituting egalitarian measures like low-income housing assistance. Obviously, Bo Xilai no longer has a prayer’s chance in administrative detention of ascending  to the PBSC, but his ideology isn’t necessarily as dead as he is. No other leader is likely to replicate his red song gatherings and throwback to the Cultural Revolution, but his focus on authoritarian-directed crime-busting and redistribution of wealth still has a wide audience. So these two models still represent plausible directions the party could go.

To get a sense of what China’s ideological spectrum is like, let’s look at the ideologies of perhaps China’s most prominent left-winger vs. its most prominent right-winger – both now considered radicals:

I give Liu Xiaobo a +1 and Mao a -1 to represent China’s political extremes. So an absolute moderate would be 0. I’ve attempted to put the contenders for the PBSC on this chart to indicate their rough ideological leanings. Yes, this is a gross oversimplification and very imperfect. Some leaders are very economically liberal while at the same time politically conservative, which makes it hard to place them on this one-dimensional scale. It is very unscientific but thus is the nature of Chinese politics. Chinese leaders are notoriously secretive and it’s usually a mystery how much individual responsibility they have for a given policy. But I’ve tried to give them incremental ticks to the left or right based on past actions and statements, as well as supposed political allies. I think this gives a general idea of where these people fall politically, but a big disclaimer: Some of these scores (especially a few of the wild cards) are fairly arbitrary and tenuously based on just a few factors. So take it with every appropriate grain of salt.

Of course, anyone who has any kind of chance at reaching the highest echelons of power today will be nowhere near the extremes of either Mao or Liu Xiaobo. The top contenders still mostly hover around either the Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao factions.

Jiang’s group favors breakneck economic growth that focuses on China’s coastal provinces. This involves a great deal of reforms in the market, but not in politics. Essentially, it keeps the rich getting richer with the hope that some of that will trickle west and down the economic ladder. Hu’s group favors a more restrained economic growth model that focuses on inner regions and social ills like income inequality and corruption. However, it also emphasizes social stability and, as we’ve seen under Hu, that means little political liberalization or new freedoms. There is however an offshoot of this faction that’s gaining more influence. This group favors democratic reform in addition to economic liberalization. We might call this the Wen Jiabao/Wang Yang group. Over the past 10 years we’ve seen the bulge of influence slowly shift from the left to right, where it now hovers over Hu’s group with Jiang and his cronies steadily losing ground. So let’s look at those thought to be the top players for the next generation of leaders and get a sense of where that bulge is headed.

The Shoo-ins

Barring some insane unexpected incident, these two will remain on the PBSC and be promoted to President and Premier.

Xi Jinping

Xi will end up in the top post because he falls nearly in the middle of the ideological spectrum and has offended the fewest number of party elders. In Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai he oversaw steady economic growth while managing to steer clear of any scandal or any incident that would put him in a negative light. But he certainly never did anything spectacular or reformist.

However, while Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were purposely avoiding Chongqing and Bo Xilai, Xi was visiting the city and praising Bo (although this was during the pinnacle of Bo’s popularity and the visit was probably a mere political miscalculation). I put Xi’s score slightly to the left, mostly because of calls for “thought control” in universities earlier this year – suggesting he intends to keep the “stability” mentality. He could be a closet reformer simply biding his time, but by most predictions, he’ll straddle the middle of the see-saw and try to balance opposing factions.

  • Political Score: -.05
  • Odds of promotion: All but certain

Li Keqiang

Li is thought to be a very close protégé to Hu Jintao, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s likely to take the same “stable” path. In fact, Hu himself might be more reformist were he to hold power during a period where he couldn’t just coast on the economy.

Li went to college right after Reform & Opening Up at Peking University – perhaps the greatest forum for liberal thought in China at the time – where he reportedly ran around with some zealous pro-democracy advocates and diligently studied English. If he was influenced by this period, he’s been rather subdued about it in his official capacity. He’s never called for political reform outright (as his predecessor Wen Jiabao often has) but has on numerous occasions called for financial reform – which he’ll be in charge of as Premier. I give him a fairly liberal score for his background and lack of anything to suggest he’s a hardliner.

  • Political Score: +0.30
  • Odds of Promotion: All but certain

The Favorites

These contenders are pretty safe bets. There’s a good chance you’ll see all of them promoted to the PBSC.

Wang Qishan

Wang is known by foreign counterparts as being a charming straight-talker. In 2003 he was called in as Beijing’s mayor to clean up the SARS mess that his predecessor had tried to conceal.  Like Li Keqiang, he has a background in economics and has even written in foreign newspapers like New York Times calling for free trade and market liberalization. In the late 90s, he was credited for an economic restructuring in Guangdong that may have averted a major financial crisis. Wall Street Journal quoted a long time foreign associate of Wang’s as saying, “[In those cases], he was doing something unorthodox, bold, or difficult — something that had a lot of potential personal downside. And in each case, he did it well.” For his bold moves to the right, I give him a fairly liberal score.

  • Political Score: +0.30
  • Odds of Promotion: Excellent. A party elder with no blemishes and a record of bold and successful initiatives, there’s little reason to suspect he won’t be promoted. He’s a likely candidate for Chairman of the National People’s Congress – the number 2 spot on the PBSC.

Zhang Dejiang

Like the previous two men, Zhang has an economics education, with one very notable difference: It was in North Korea. He is essentially everything that Wang Qishan is not. As head of Guangdong he suppressed news of the SARS outbreak and led numerous attacks on the southern media group, which saw a few top editors imprisoned. He managed to dodge culpability for a number of other debacles in Guangdong and did manage to oversee (what the party would call) stable growth. This is likely why he got called in to take over Chongqing when Bo Xilai was sacked. Zhang is the classic communist leader: Quiet, firm and secretive, but he gets things done, no matter who he has to step on.

  • Political Score: -0.40
  • Odds at Promotion: Very good. He’ll likely be the left-wing’s compromise for Wang Qishan. He’s a party elder very experienced in stability maintenance on the provincial level and thought to be an ally of Jiang Zemin (who still exerts influence – both directly and through his cronies).

Li Yuanchao

Another economist and graduate of Peking University – where he studied from 1988-1991 amidst the democracy protests. He later shielded some members of the Communist Party Youth League that had shown sympathy to the protestors. As head of Jiangsu he instituted some seemingly democratic reforms that made leaders more accountable to the people. But as BBC notes, “He still seems to believe in the supremacy of the party and its right to rule China. At a speech given at Harvard University a few years ago he said the party’s ability to ‘pool resources’ had helped the country deal with the financial crisis.”

  • Political Score: +0.20
  • Odds at Promotion: Very Good. Like Li Keqiang, Li Yuanchao is rumored to be an ally of Hu Jintao, but not too offensive to the conservative faction. He currently heads the Communist Party’s Organization Department. This is the same position He Guoqiang held before becoming Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection – the number 8 slot on the PBSC.  

Liu Yunshan

Former Xinhua reporter, Liu is now a Politburo member and director of the Propaganda Department. This position, almost by definition, means he has few liberal tendencies. He’s been at the helm over internet crackdowns, has called for there to be greater control over the web, and overseen a gamut of obnoxious measures neutering entertainment shows. Don’t look to Liu for much reform.

  • Political score: -0.30
  • Odds at Promotion: Excellent. It’s expected he’ll take over Li Changchun’s number 5 spot on the PBSC as the main director of propaganda and ideology. It’s a natural move.

The Wild Cards

This is where things get interesting. Who the remaining PBSC spots will go to is anyone’s guess. These are the people thought to be in the running.

Liu Yandong

Liu is playing the game well by keeping her cards very close to her chest. She could be the first woman to ever join the ranks of the PBSC and she presumably knows joining this boy’s club takes some tactical cunning. As such, we don’t know much about her. She allegedly has close ties to both Hu Jintao AND Jiang Zemin – a political anomaly that suggests she’s moderate and well positioned for promotion. Other than that, she reportedly gets on well with foreign contacts, has given token support for many mild reforms (ie – education), wants a greater role for NGOs, and is very economically competent.

  • Political Score: +0.10
  • Odds at promotion: Pretty good, given her connections. And promoting her would be great PR for a government that’s increasingly trying to stop sex-selective abortions and pretend women have an equal shot at success in China. When Liu Yang blasted off to become the first Chinese woman in space, Liu Yandong was there to read Hu Jintao’s remarks. It was perhaps a not-so-subtle hint that there will be another big “first” for Chinese women this year.

Meng Jianzhu

If Meng were to be promoted to the PBSC, it would almost certainly be to the number 9 spot atop China’s state security and police apparatus. He’s currently minister of public security which, again, by definition doesn’t allow for much liberal thinking. Not too much is known about his political philosophies, except that he loves stability and has little tolerance for drug addicts. The good news though is that it would be very hard to top Zhou Yongkang in taking a hardline. In fact, it’s rumored Zhou endorsed Bo Xilai as his successor rather than Meng, suggesting Meng is softer than either. Indeed, he recently launched a “three inquiries, three assessments” campaign that aims to put a human face on the police force and transform its image from that of a tool of corruption to a guardian of the people.

  • Political score: -0.20
  • Odds at promotion: Pretty good. Meng Jianzhu may prove to be the greatest beneficiary of Bo Xilai’s fall. He’s one of the few contenders for the PBSC that’s not currently on the 25-man Politburo, so a promotion would entail a leap frog, but he holds the same position Zhou Yongkang did before his promotion. Completely unsubstantiated reports have even suggested Zhou has already (involuntarily) handed most of his power over to Meng.

Zhang Gaoli

Another economist and Jiang Zemin loyalist. He’s credited for much of the development of Shenzhen and Guangdong in the late 90s. He was then moved to Tianjin in 2007 to clean up after a series of corruption scandals. His philosophy is pretty much in line with Jiang Zemin’s: Economy ahead of anything else.

  • Political score: -0.15
  • Odds at promotion: Meh. There’s hasn’t been much buzz to suggest he’s destined for higher office. He might sneak his way into the PBSC if the conservatives ultimately win out in the horse-trading.  

Yu Zhengsheng

Yu took over control of Shanghai in 2007 succeeding Xi Jinping. He’s reportedly on ok terms with both the Jiang and Hu factions, but looks to be more on Jiang’s side of the fence. He also has strong ties with Deng Xiaoping’s family, which is likely what saved his political career when his brother (who was the director of the Beijing National Security Bureau) defected to the United States in 1985. He has advocated developing the legal system and enforcing the rule of law which, if true, would seemingly put him more in the liberal camp. Not so sure though.

  • Political Score: +0.05
  • Odds at promotion: Fair. Some analysts have given Yu pretty good odds since he holds the same Shanghai party secretary position Xi Jinping and Jiang Zemin did before rising to the PBSC. But his brother’s defection to the US is a red mark. It may not have stopped him from making the top 25, but the issue will almost certainly be noticed by the masses if he’s in the top 9. That could be a problem. He would make a good compromise candidate though, so I’d give him better odds than Zhang Gaoli.

Hu Chunhua

In 2008 Hu went to Henan to became China’s youngest governor and now is the head of Inner Mongolia. His policies there have painted him as a proponent of more official accountability and wealth equality over rapid GDP growth. He has taken a hardline on unrest though in the province and in Tibet (where he was previously a lower level official). A definite Hu protégé, he’s even been nicknamed “Little Hu” because of their similar backgrounds and ideologies.

  • Political Score: +0.20
  • Odds at Promotion (to PBSC): Not good…yet. He’s not yet even in the 25-man Politburo but he almost certainly will be this year. At just 49-years old it’s unlikely he’ll leapfrog into the top 9 but, barring some unfortunate political incident, he probably will in 2017. There’ve even been whispers that he’s being groomed to become China’s president after Xi Jinping retires in 2022. He’s definitely someone to keep an eye on.

Ling Jihua

You probably first heard this name from the completely unsubstantiated rumors that it was his son who died in a Bejing Ferrari crash earlier this year. He’s currently secretary of the Central Secretariat of the Communist Party and thought to be a close aide to Hu Jintao and proponent of his policies.

  • Political Score: 0.00
  • Odds at Promotion: Bad. He’s not in the Politburo and really doesn’t have much to his name except some reports that he has impressed the Central Committee – the roughly 350-person body that makes the Politburo selection. He might get promoted to the Politburo, but I’m not really sure why his name is being tossed around to join the PBSC.

Wang Yang

Sinophiles are undoubtedly familiar with this name. He’s the Guangzhou party secretary/Politburo member that peacefully quelled the Wukan uprising. He’s an outspoken proponent of democratic reform, free speech and liberalization of the media. Those hopeful for a major reformer to join the PBSC have their fingers crossed for Wang Yang.

  • Political Score: +0.50
  • Odds at Promotion: Not great. When Bo Xilai fell, most seemed to think it cleared the path for Wang’s assent to the PBSC. But the more I think about it, the more I doubt they were ever competitors for a single position. In fact, I think Wang may have been hurt by Bo’s fall. The two are completely at odds ideologically, so perhaps they both could have entered the PBSC as a compromise. But for just one of them to make it would require the opposing faction to bite a major bullet. Besides that, Wang might just be too liberal and unpredictable for the time being. His calls for democratic reform and a freer press threaten to unwind many of the officials who themselves may be guilty of Bo-like transgressions. So I give Wang a long-shot at this point. The good news for his fans though is that he’s young enough to still be eligible for the PBSC in five years if he doesn’t make it this time.

How do they stack up?

To give some perspective, here’s where I’d put the current PBSC:

  • Hu Jintao: 0.00
  • Wu Bangguo: -0.10
  • Wen Jiabao: +0.50
  • Jia Qinglin: -0.30
  • Li Changchun: -0.25
  • Xi Jinping: -0.05
  • Li Keqiang: +0.30
  • He Guoqiang: -0.10
  • Zhou Yongkang: -0.60

And two others worth noting:

  • Jiang Zemin: -0.30
  • Bo Xilai: -0.50

So let’s put the current PBSC on the chart next to the contenders for the next PBSC:

You’ll notice the current PBSC is tipped to the conservatives with Hu balancing out the middle. With the next PBSC however, it looks like the balance might tip ever so slightly toward the liberals.

What does it all mean?

This is NOT scientific by any means, so it may not mean much. Also, this is based on the assumption that the next PBSC will have 9 members and be ordered in the same way the current one is. It’s very possible that it won’t be. There have been some intriguing rumors that the standing committee will either be whittled down to 7 members (restoring the pre-2002 level) or be expanded to 11. If cut down to 7, many are assuming the two spots to be demoted off the standing committee would be the propaganda chief and the state security czar.

If this happened, it would shake up this whole analysis and probably be a net gain for the liberals – as Meng Jianzhu and Liu Yunshan (both conservatives) might find themselves promoted, but without PBSC seats. Expanding the committee to 11 could also be good for liberals since the wild cards overall seem to lean more toward that camp. This is probably why Hu Jintao is rumored to be pushing for a re-sizing.


In one way or another, the liberals look poised to take greater influence, but remember, that’s “liberal” by Chinese standards. Nobody (not even Wang Yang) is going to want to do anything too quickly. In fact, Xi Jinping and the whole Politburo will probably play it safe for the first year with the “stability first” status quo while they consolidate their power.

After that, we’ll probably see the reforms that effectively halted before the Olympics slowly pick up again, liberalizing intra-party democracy, speech and press freedoms. This may happen concurrently with left-wing initiatives attempting to redistribute wealth. However, many of China’s problems are becoming worse and more visible at a speed that will likely outpace any reforms the new leadership is able to agree on. And the current leadership looks to be just running out the clock on their reign by clamping down hard on discontent, which will only fan it further in the long-term.

Then there are a lot of other wild-cards that make any prediction largely meaningless. Chief among them is the economy. That can easily falter or some other unexpected event could happen (remember, no one saw Tiananmen coming a mile away). So even if the new leaders do start to liberalize and restore CCP legitimacy, time probably isn’t on their side.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: A full revolution is VERY unlikely and it would almost certainly be contained if it started. BUT, it is entirely possible that some catalyst (disaster, major revelation, serious economic blow, etc.) could create a Tiananmen-like shock that forces accelerated reform. That may in fact be the only thing capable of jump-starting the serious measures needed to address China’s growing problems. I’m becoming less and less convinced that either the current or future PBSC will reform enough in time to prevent such a catalyst.


Danovic, J. (n.d.). China politburo 2012 leadership change: Everything you need to know. Policymic

Mauldin, J. Looking to 2012: China’s next generation of leaders. InvestorsInsight.com.

Miller, A. The 18th central committee politburo: A quixotic, foolhardy, rashly speculative, but nonetheless ruthlessly reasoned projection. China Leadership Moniter,

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