As the American political calendar gears up this year for the mid-term elections in November, the Chinese political system also finds itself in its own variation of mid-term. We are at the halfway point of the second five-year term of the current leadership of General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Both men ascended to their positions at the 16th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2002, and were affirmed to continue into a second term at the 17th Party Congress in 2007. According to Party regulations, each must step down from their respective posts at the end of their second five-year term which will coincide with the convening of the 18th Party Congress in October 2012.
Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen are members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), a body of nine men who run China. Where China was once ruled by a single emperor (or chairman), today it is ruled by a committee. The way the system is set up, one member of this body assumes the position of General Secretary (and often State President, a ceremonial post), thus becoming China's "Paramount Leader," (although without the dictatorial powers of previous Paramount Leaders). He is the head of the Party. The second in the hierarchy assumes the position of Premier of the State Council, the body that actually runs the government of China.
As the terms of these men begin to wind down, scholars and China watchers are now beginning to wonder which leaders currently near the top of the Party hierarchy will be elevated to the PSC generally, and to the positions of General Secretary and Premier respectively. While there are very few (if any) things that outsiders can know with certainty about the inner workings of the party or its processes, it seems fairly clear that Mr. Xi Jinping and Mr. Li Keqiang will assume the two top spots in China's "Fifth Generation" of Leaders. That certainty rests in the fact that due to age and length of service limits, all of the other seven member of the PSC must step down at the Congress in 2012. In other words, these are the only two men who will most likely remain on the PSC. The likelihood that a new member coming on the body in 2012 will be elevated to the top position is extremely low.
Mr. Xi and Mr. Li represent two of the competing "factions" within the Chinese Communist Party: "The Shanghai Faction," (including the Princelings, children of high officials) and "The Youth League Faction" composed of those who have risen in power through the Communist Party Youth League. The son of a former Vice-Premier, Mr. Xi was promoted to the PSC in 2007 from his position as Party Secretary in Shanghai, a post that he had been given only a few months earlier, following the downfall of the former Secretary on corruption charges. He has also held leadership posts in other booming coastal provinces that have been the drivers of the reform and opening movement. Mr. Li comes to the PSC directly from his position as Party Secretary in Liaoning Province, in the heart of China's rust belt, and via the Communist Party Youth League.
Party protocol and hierarchy would suggest that Mr. Xi will be given the position of General Secretary (replacing Mr. Hu) and Mr. Li will be given the position of Premier (replacing Mr. Wen), despite the fact it is widely known that Mr. Hu would prefer to have Mr. Li promoted to the post of General Secretary.
Earlier this year it was expected that Mr. Xi would be elevated to a position on the Central Military Commission (in preparation for his assuming the post of Chairman of that Comission, a title that Mr. Hu currently has). He was not elevated to the post, however, prompting many to wonder if his rise to the top had hit a speed bump or had been derailed. This raised eyebrows because it is widely know that Mr. Hu would prefer to be succeeded by Mr. Li rather than Mr. Xi. Alice Miller, writing in the Chinese Leadership Monitor has done an in-depth review of the current portfolios of Mr. Li and Mr. Xi and, as a result, concludes that Mr. Xi still seems to be in line to succeed Mr. Hu and Mr. Li still in line to succeed Mr. Wen.
In addition to the interest in who will become the next General Secretary (and President) and Premier, there is also much speculation on who will be the seven new members of the PSC. Tradition (and some protocol) tells us they will most likely come from the ranks of the Provincial Party Secretaries and current Cabinet Ministers. This new Gang of Nine will form the core of China's Fifth Generation of Leaders. That in itself is interesting, but it will also give us clues as to who might make up the Sixth Generation, since the top two leaders to be elevated in 2022 will, in fact, be one of these nine.
While current Party leaders would obviously prefer to select their own predecessors, an interesting trend called gedai (skipping a generation) has emerged, whereby a Party Secretary has influence not over who immediately succeeds him, but over who succeeds his successor. Deng Xiaoping selected Mr. Hu to replace Mr. Jiang. It is believed that Mr. Jiang is the prime backer (and thereby selector) of Mr. Xi. This would indicate then, that Mr. Hu will have influence over who succeeds Mr. Xi. The two names that seem to be emerging so far are Hunan Governor, Mr. Zhou Qiang, and Hebei Governer, Mr. Hu Chenhua. Both are believed to be allies of Mr. Hu and are widely expected to be elevated to the PSC.
While there are many unknowns and uncertainties surrounding the current and future leadership of China, and thus the direction the nation will take, it is important for us to remember that God remains sovereign over all of the affairs of China and the world. He does not see the Communist Party in power and say "oops." He does not look at Mr. Hu and say "oops." We can be encouraged by the words of Daniel: "He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding." For His own purposes, and for this time, He has ordained the leaders of China. Our response should be that of Daniel's: "Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might."
For an exhaustive, detailed analysis of the names and biographies of the possible Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee Members, see the following three articles by Cheng Li:
- "China's Mid-term Jockeying: Gearing up for 2012: Provincial Chiefs" (China Leadership Monitor) http://www.hoover.org/publications/china-leadership-monitor/article/5330
- "China's Mid-term Jockeying: Gearing Up for 2012: Cabinet Ministers" (China Leadership Monitor) http://www.hoover.org/publications/china-leadership-monitor/article/5273
- "China's Mid-term Jockeying: Gearing Up for 2012: The Military" (China Leadership Monitor) http://www.hoover.org/publications/china-leadership-monitor/article/35466
Image credit: MY ROAD : FLAG OF CHINA by Michaël Garrigues, on Flickr