He’s a Xi! Jinping enters Beijing Valhalla

He’s a Xi! Jinping enters Beijing Valhalla

The machineries of the Forbidden City have now made public their choice of China’s new leader for the coming decade. As expected, Xi Jinping, a true ‘princeling of the party’, will succeed Hu Jintao into the top posts of General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and head of the country’s ultra-powerful Military Commission. J BROOKS SPECTOR takes a quick first look at this shift of power.

In contrast to the multi-year, roiling cat fight that is the American way of picking a national leader, or the peek-a-boo, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t version that is the way of the South African governing party’s leadership struggles, the Chinese way of sorting things out is a slow, stately, but virtually opaque transition for anyone looking in from the outside of the Chinese Communist Party’s innermost councils. Despite today’s events, the full leadership transition only becomes complete in March 2013. At that point, Hu Jintao is supposed to relinquish his title of president to Xi Jinping, in his capacity as party head. Meanwhile, the country’s current premier, Li Keqiang, then gives way to Wen Jiabao as the new man in that position as well.

Xi’s personal great leap forward has now marked another once-every-10-years transition in Chinese political life. This time around, the conveyor belt was seemingly unaffected by an array of political and personal scandals, an economy that has been losing some of its buoyancy and energy, as well as growing public demands and even protests calling for more openness and reforms.

Xi’s formal public appointment as general secretary came after a morning session attended by senior party members that itself had come at the end of a week’s worth of party congress events. In being named as military commission chair as well, Xi has broken with recent practice whereby the departing leader continued in that post so as to have a toehold of influence over the incoming leadership cadre. Xi is now positioned to begin consolidating his authority in the Politburo Standing Committee, the seven-member body that holds the reins of power.

In claiming their new positions at top of the heap, the seven filed out from behind a curtain to take the ritual applause of the crowd, dressed in dark suits, with sleek black, pomaded hair and, for those who needed them, stylish wire-rimmed glasses that seem to have replaced those large, black-rimmed glasses that had frequently been Beijing’s power look. At his moment of political coronation, Xi told the country, “We shall do everything we can to live up to your trust and fulfil our mission”.

He went on to explain more thoroughly, “There are also many pressing problems within the party that need to be resolved, particularly corruption. We must make every effort to solve these problems. The whole party must stay on full alert.” Xi also reached back to the roots of China’s ancient civilization and its struggles in trying to regain a leading global position, even as he promised to lead the country for the benefit of all of the Chinese people. Xi added, “Our responsibility now is to rally and lead the entire party and the people of all ethnic groups in China in taking up this historic baton and in making continued efforts to achieve the great renewal of the Chinese nation, make the Chinese nation stand rock-firm in the family of nations, and make even greater contribution to mankind.”

Xi also gave the laundry list of things that needed to be done for the betterment of the country, such as improved educational opportunities, higher incomes, a bigger social safety net and more environmental protection, all efforts designed “to meet their desire for a happy life is our mission”.

The others joining him in front of the crowd for their big moment were: Li Keqiang, now effectively premier-designate and the nation’s chief economic official; Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang; Shanghai Party Secretary Yu Zhengsheng; Tianjin Party Secretary Zhang Gaoli; Propaganda Chief Liu Yunshan, who was appointed Thursday to run the party’s executive secretariat; and Vice Premier Wang Qishan, who now heads up the party’s internal watchdog panel.

The rise of Xi and Li to the summit of Chinese political power had become all but certain once they joined the upper tiers of party leadership half a decade earlier. They also represent a generational change in leading the world’s No. 2 economy and newest diplomatic and military power. All of this is taking place even as China’s economy has been cooling off and as a noticeably better-off Chinese public has been making its feelings known about expectations for better living standards and social fairness.

Photo: A combination picture shows China’s new Politburo Standing Committee members, (1st row from L to R), Zhang Dejiang, Li Keqiang, Yu Zhengsheng, (2nd row from L to R) Zhang Gaoli, Wang Qishan, Liu Yunshan meeting with the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, November 15, 2012. China’s ruling Communist Party unveiled its new leadership line-up on Thursday to steer the world’s second-largest economy for the next five years, with Vice President Xi Jinping taking over from outgoing President Hu Jintao as party chief. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Xi appears to have the perfect pedigree for his new job. He is the son of a genuine hero of the revolution and governmental reformer. In fact, at least four of the seven members of this new politburo sport major party backgrounds. Analysts said this means that a full 63 years after the revolution that brought the party to power in the first place, a party-driven “nobility” has come into being, going forward for the newest generation of leaders. This new generation will be the one that must deal with that public anger over a growing rich/poor gap and the corruptions and privileges that have fattened much of the country’s elite. At the same time, according to observers, the new committee seems to include conservatives rather than more reform-oriented allies of departing leader Hu.

If this is true, it would be a sign the new leadership is not yet disposed to engage in major liberalizing efforts to open up or reform government.  Moreover, save for the two top men – Xi and Li, who are in their 50s – the others are already in their 60s. As a result, these others likely will bump into the party’s informal retirement age by the time the next congress rolls around in half a decade. The likely result will be a sustained period of low-grade political squabbling and intra-party manoeuvring – something South African readers may be particularly trained to appreciate. Shortly after the committee’s names were announced, Chinese University of Hong Kong scholar Willy Lam commented to media, “Political reform will be put on the back burner. Politically it will be frozen. It will be totally frozen.”

Despite a seemingly overall conservative cast with the new leadership group as a whole, Xi may also be positioned to be more open to international contact than his soon-to-be predecessor. Xi’s daughter is studying at Harvard and he had an early important exposure to the West as part of an agricultural study mission when he was still a young manager. In fact, he recently reprised a visit to one of his Iowa stopovers. Moreover, he’s seen the blunt side of power being wielded too. He was rusticated during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. He returned from that experience to university study and then the first steps in his career trajectory came as China had begun its major reforms under Deng Xiaoping.

In his rise to power, Xi was a secretary to an important general, was a low-visibility manager in a rural part of the country and then gained increasingly important positions in the quickly modernizing coastal regions of the nation. This put him right in the midst of the excitement that came as China began implementing its new program of market-oriented reforms. Xi gained a reputation as a go-to, can-do guy – even as he was careful not to rock the political consensus boat too hard.

Xi’s ascendance actually represents just the second smooth Chinese political transition since the communist party gained power. Nonetheless, this year was a troublesome one when the country’s most visible, messiest political scandal in years played out in full view of the international press. Bo Xilai, who had been tabbed as a rising member of the new generation’s elite and was apparently also in the running for one of those key slots on the Standing Committee, was abruptly purged after one of his aides let slip a lurid story that Bo’s wife had murdered a British businessman – and as Bo’s own showy, self-aggrandizing political moves came to naught.

In the coming years, Xi should have a freer hand to establish himself, especially since Hu has surrendered his position as head of the country’s military commission. Meanwhile, the Standing Committee has been constituted with two fewer members than the current one. This may help in reaching decisions through its consensus-style decision-making. Nonetheless, Xi’s colleagues on the committee do not particularly owe their new positions to him, rather, they mostly have other political patrons poised in the background – and they also have their own individual power bases. For example, Li looks to Hu as his mentor. While several, including Xi, reach back to Jiang Zemin, the party head who retired 10 years ago, for their political touchstones. Because they are not lined up neatly on policy issues, experts said Xi will need to forge coalitions among the committee members to move forward.

Experts also see this group as a whole as a rather conservative one – no bold reformers here. For example, Liu, in his service as propaganda chief, led controls over the country’s domestic media and has tried to add restrictions over Chinese use of and access to the Internet. He will now be in charge of many of the whole party’s key departments. 

“I don’t think this is the dream team. [But] this is a very experienced, very mature and very cautious, stable team,” said Wang Feng, director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy. 

As for the outgoing leader and head of the Politburo’s Standing Committee, Hu’s influence seems to be waning in this slow-motion transfer of power. He will continue as the rather ceremonial state president, only giving up this position when the party-controlled legislature meets in March and finally appoints leading officials in the State Council, the Chinese cabinet. However, Hu’s top aide didn’t even make it into the less powerful, 25-member Politburo, one step down from the Standing Committee. He was sidelined after his son died in a car crash with his Ferrari – a car he certainly shouldn’t have been able to afford in the first place. When the crash happened, officials tried unsuccessfully to cover up the whole thing. Clearly that sent the wrong message for a rising star in China’s Communist Party.

The 205-member Communist Party Central Committee was technically behind these selections, and they were, equally technically speaking, chosen by about 2,000 or so delegates at the 18th Party Congress, which in turn is supposed to be representing more than 82-million party members.  The Congress ended its one-week summit on 14 November. But the Standing Committee’s final composition was more likely the result of the Chinese equivalent of that old cliché, “the smoke-filled room”, as Hu’s supporters and others still giving obeisance to Jiang jostled with yet other alignments for influence on the final composition of the Standing Committee.

Observers said it is simply too early to tell how this new group will chart China’s future. They men have reached the top rung in part because they have managed to sublimate their individuality publicly. 

Nonetheless, the Standing Committee is packed with party princelings, the offspring of Communist Party elders who have increasingly grown used to the perks of power. But background and privilege may only explain so much. Among the group, Zhang is a North Korea-trained economist and Wang is thought to be a more market-oriented reformer. The one thing that seems to cut across all the new members of the Standing Committee is allegiance to the lingering impact of the ultimate survivor, the 86-year-old Jiang.

Both the Chinese people and observers around the world will be watching very, very carefully as Xi and his crew begin to set their priorities and craft new programs and policies for China, a nation with an economy and international footprint that has changed almost unimaginably since the time when Xi was a young agricultural officer admiring the farms of Muscatine, Iowa. DM

Read more:

  • “Meet the Men Who Will Rule China,” on Time
  • “China reveals its new leaders,” on the Economist
  • “Ending Congress, China Presents New Leadership Headed by Xi Jinping,” on The New York Times
  • “Xi Jinping Appointed New Chinese Leader,” on the Financial Times
  • “Xi Jinping shaped by rural re-education,” on the Financial Times

Main photo: Chinese painter Luo Jianhui draws a portrait of incoming Chinese leader Xi Jinping in his studio in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou November 1, 2012. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options