A look at what the new Politburo Standing Committee means for China and the WorldWatch
I'll preface this by noting this OP is going to be quite huge for what may be a bit of a niche area. Tl;dr: The PSC appointments signal an even greater influence of Xi Jinping over the next five years and possibly beyond. Consequently, whether this is good or bad is a function of Xi's competence and his true intentions. It isn't inherently bad, but a lot of care needs to be taken to avoid things getting very messy.
Otherwise, if you're interested in the rest of this, feel free to brew a cuppa cause this is going to be a long one.
An overview of Chinese Political Leadership
The infographic below provides an excellent summary of how the Communist Party and by extension the Chinese government structures it's highest levels of governance:
Credit: The Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies (click the image for larger resolution)
To summarise, the de jure elected (but in practice, controlled by the incumbent politburo and standing committee) Central Committee elects the full twenty-five member Politburo, and of that group, the members that form the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). Each member of the PSC is delegated a specific area of governance for which they are responsible for.
Election of PSC members centres primarily around customs and precedent rather than a formally codified rulebook, which provides a degree of flexibility to break precedent. Andrei Lungu of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific recently outlined some of these as a section of a four-part Diplomat article on Chinese politics. Again in summary, typical considerations include Age (the infamous '67 up, 68 down rule' whereby members over 68 should retire once their term is over), experience on the Politburo, the personal support of previous presidents and ex-PSC members, and experience governing a province or municipality, amongst other things.
In a country where radical governance reform is not considered unless deemed necessary out of the principle desire of political stability, this provides a framework to analyse the PSC members picked today. In particular, elections of members that break precedent may be considered a significant change in how the country and Xi Jinping will operate until 2022 and beyond. For example, the age convention may provide clues regarding succession, with the stacking of individuals close to the 68 'limit' suggesting a continued securing of Xi's grip on power instead of providing an avenue for a rising star to establish their reputation, or vice versa with the election of young (relative to incumbents) members that can be groomed to take hold of the reins in future. The notion of prolonged maintenance of power is a theme that'll be common throughout this discussion for obvious reasons.
There is a strict order of importance amongst the PSC which will be how they are considered.
1. Xi Jinping (64), President of China, Chairman of the Military Committee and General Secretary of the Central Committee
A leader of China with control exceeding many of his predecessors, few would have seen from the start that Xi Jinping was capable of securing the degree to which he has managed to consolidate power. Thanks to the disgrace of Bo Xilai, Xi Jinping rose to the presidency as a unity candidate that all factions of the CCP would find amicable. From there, he has managed to utilise an anti-corruption campaign to shake up entrenched loyalties and weaken the influence of ex-presidents and factions alike, replacing key positions with his own people. In addition, he's pursued an interesting dual message of nationalism (with regards to sovereignty disputes) and globalism (the encouragement of globalisation and concerns regarding climate change) to build national and international influence, akin to the quintessential political strongman. His position was essentially guaranteed so I won't delve here any further.
2. Li Keqiang (62), Premier of China
Whilst this appointment feels very predictable, Li Keqiang's hold of the rank of Premier wasn't always seen as solid. The only other member than Xi Jinping to violate convention of prior experience in the wider Politburo before ascension to the standing committee, Li was a rising star along with Xi when he initially joined the PSC. Whilst losing to Xi Jinping in the competition for the presidency, his '2nd prize' of premiership was at risk owing to two reasons.
One is that inherently as an initial rival for the presidency, he built the support of those who did not primarily support Xi Jinping initially. His power base came from the Communist Youth League, a previously influential training ground of ex-Presidents including Hu Jintao whose power as a faction has been chipped away by Xi's own personnel. Second, as an Economist by nature, many of the economic reforms undertaken by the government are of his responsibility and with the failure to reduce debt meaningfully, the stock market troubles of 2015 and the slowing of economic growth, questions were asked of his competence and consequently, the level of favour he had.
That Li Keqiang remains the Premier can mean several things. It could suggest that the damage done to his reputation has been over-exaggerated (a point of note being that the growth of the Chinese economy has recently recovered nominally in line with the wider global economy). Yet, it could also mean that Xi Jinping wishes to retain someone on whom he can lay blame on in future if the economy takes a turn for the worse. Given what we have discussed before in terms of power consolidation, it would seem the latter is more probable as by retaining his status of Premier, Xi is able to enforce the notion that no member of the ruling group is immune from criticism in line with the anti-corruption campaign should things go wrong.
3. Li Zhanshu (67), Chairman of the Standing Committee
One of Xi Jinping's most trusted men, this promotion is perhaps the greatest indication of a continued consolidation of power by Xi of the leadership. The effective chief of staff for Xi since his appointment to the Politburo in 2012, there were many signs of the standing in which he was held. Notably, he accompanied Xi Jinping in state visits of both Putin and Trump, something that goes far above his brief as chief of the General Office that in theory is only responsible for daily administration of the leadership.
As someone who's enthusiastically promoted Xi's agenda, his appointment is the greatest indication that Xi wishes to retain a significant amount of power for the next five years and possibly beyond. If the 67 up, 68 down rule holds, he is only able to remain a member of the standing committee for one term giving him no room for succession. It also rules out a role of particular importance for any rising star to establish their own power base and to secure the loyalty of the future leadership.
4. Wang Yang (62), Chairman of the National Committee
The so-called Liberal of the seven PSC members, Wang Yang's appointment is perhaps one of the most interesting. Having served as party secretary of two extremely influential areas (that of Chongqing, a major hub of the Yangtze river region and Guangdong, the economic powerhouse in the South that spurred much of the economic growth from Deng Xiaoping's market reforms), his appointment throws the notion of power consolidation into doubt.
A social and economic reformist liberal, Wang Yang does not belong to the same group considered as Xi's core allies, nor the Zhejiang clique faction (as discussed by the Jamestown Foundation) that supports him. Instead his influence, like Li Keqiang, stems from the Communist Youth League. Yet, he isn't a political opponent of Xi either, having clashed with Bo Xilai, who was his successor in the Chongqing post, in a highly publicised campaign on alleged prevalence of gangs and mafia in the city which was seen as the primary campaign in which Bo sought to gain a place on the PSC.
There are indications as well of a tolerance of direct democracy, as whilst he was chief in Guangdong, he gave permission for peaceful village elections in Wukan after the 2011 Wukan protests that was considered "free of the Communist Party meddling that typically mars Chinese election results" (notably, his successor in Guangdong, Hu Chunhua, was seen as a potential successor to Xi Jinping and never extended the same courtesy in 2016 where the protests were quelled).
Some of this runs counter with the core principles that have defined Xi's rein: The continued centralisation of power to the state and to Xi in manners economic and political, so his delegation to the PSC is particularly interesting. In my view, his appointment is there to serve as a populist and publicly appealing face of the government. His liberal furnishings help to balance the image of a heavily Xi-allied PSC despite him remaining broadly loyal to Xi Jinping and not really advocating new reforms in the last couple of years. His passion for poverty reduction and wealth equality are also areas that are extremely favoured by the general public and are complimentary of Xi Jinping's own indication of poverty reduction being a core area of focus until 2022.
5. Wang Huning (62), Secretary of the Central Committee Secretariat
If there were any equivalent of a Henry Kissinger amongst the Chinese government, it would be this man. An academic of nature, not many will have heard of him yet he has heavily drafted and swayed the ideology of three Chinese presidents - Jiang Zemin's 三个代表 (Theory of the Three Represents), Hu Jintao's 科学发展观 (Scientific Outlook on Development) and Xi Jinping's 中国梦 (simply, the Chinese Dream).
He brings about a conservative brand of pragmatism by Chinese standards, having stated that political reform such as the greater involvement of democracy is inevitable with economic growth and modernisation, but that centralisation of leadership promotes more rapid growth and distribution of 'social resources' in the stages beforehand.
Whilst having influenced three very different leaders, Wang Huning is broadly seen as a member of Xi's inner circle and when considering his influence on ideology, it's likely that his appointment stems from a need to 'psychologically' secure Xi's power by devising a vision that the country can believe in. He is also as far as I'm aware one of the only PSC members in recent times to have not served as a top official in a region or municipality prior to their appointment. Again, this may indicate that Xi Jinping's core concern is power consolidation if he is willing to break this precedent.
In addition, he is widely seen as a member of Xi Jinping's entourage on state visits around the world. This may therefore highlight a geopolitical focus in his role. It's widely known that Xi Jinping seeks to increase Chinese influence globally, and therefore Wang Huning serves as one of his best tools in understanding global dynamics and formulating a stratagem to outmanoeuvre rivals like the United States.
6. Zhao Leji (60), Secretary of the Central Commission of Discipline Inspection (the Anti-corruption unit)
There was a lot of speculation over whether Xi Jinping would break the age precedent and keep Wang Qishan (69), the 'enforcer' of his anti-corruption campaign on the PSC in this position anyway, given how much this area is core to his popularity in China. Despite shying away from doing so, his pick of successor in Zhao Leji is a natural carry-forward for maintaining this area as he worked closely with Wang Qishan as the head of the party's organisation department.
Consequently, his appointment is likely to signal a 'business as usual' approach to the anti-corruption campaign. Despite originating from Shaanxi, the same province as Xi, he has no strong affiliation with any political faction or ex-President. Though the youngest of the PSC, he has an uncharismatic persona that would be unsuitable for the image of a future leader.
7. Han Zheng (63), First Vice Premier of China
Han has an unusual distinction of spending his entire political career up until today in Shanghai. He briefly served under Xi whilst the latter was chief of Shanghai before taking the job himself in 2012 and presiding over economic reforms such as financial liberalisation and a free trade zone within the city. With the Shanghai seat being another influential job that gives greater chances of promotion to the PSC, this was perhaps a more conventional choice.
The odd one out in terms of standing, Han's power base originates not from allying with Xi nor the support of the Hu Jintao-aligned Communist Youth League, but the Jiang Zemin-aligned Shanghai Clique. Whilst broadly competent in his handling of Shanghai, there is nothing particularly distinguishable about him that necessarily grants him preferred entry into the PSC, other than simply holding the Shanghai seat. Thus I view this appointment as a matter of tradition more than anything else. With a lack of political experience outside of Shanghai, it is unlikely that he will be able to gain any particularly critical standing amongst the party which may leave this as the peak of his involvement in Chinese politics.
Amongst the six other members of the PSC, at least three are historical allies of Xi Jinping. Of the others, two are aligned with the Communist Youth League (whose presence may indicate Xi Jinping's influence over the broader party is not as strong as perceived) and the last member has no particular allegiance to either group. All are of the age where a future presidency is not an attainable goal. As has already been discussed in the media, this means that Xi Jinping has stacked a small majority of supporters in his favour on the PSC and closed the traditional path to ascension for future leaders.
Speculation now turns to what this implies. If Xi Jinping abides by the constitution which specifies he should step down as head of state after 2022, the future leadership of China is now extremely unclear. The rising stars of Chen Miner and Hu Chunhua have not been given the traditional five years in the PSC associated with the grooming of a future leader and thus their chances of succession are now unclear. Moreover even if either are eventually named the successor after 2022, neither will have had the time to build their own power base which may weaken the control they have over the party.
There may of course still be upsides in this situation of course. If the heir-apparent of the presidency isn't clear to everyone but Xi, it also means rivals are less able to set up political traps that diminish their standing before they get the job. With the anti-corruption campaign, it also means there is no clear date in which Xi Jinping's hold of power will decrease. This is particularly important for him as purging enemies and rivals will inherently incur more enemies thus increasing the importance of appearing strong for as long as possible.
But what about the other scenario? If instead he wishes to remain in power for longer than the two terms given, that throws many established conventions into doubt. It makes the more aggressive moves to increase his global influence more viable given the longer mandate he will have to impose his will.
Whatever the influence he currently has over the country, this makes Xi Jinping even more central to the path that China follows for the next five years or more. In many ways, Xi has broken precedents whilst following traditions today. It does not come without risk as this is a rather new direction that hasn't been seen before. Are these moves justified? Perhaps. Much will depend on whether Xi miscalculates and what his true intentions are.
Consolidation can destroy adaptability and creativity, foolishly risk militaristic over-expansion, and brutally suppress dissent. It can also be key in pushing through crucial reforms without delay and bickering. If wielded correctly, the greatly increased importance of Xi just might be a force that helps to improve the respectability of China globally but great care will need to be taken, for getting things wrong will spell trouble for everyone.
What do you think? Do you see the PSC appointments as a way to secure a third term for Xi Jinping or to take pressure off a successor? Do you have anything to add to this analysis? I don't profess to have a comprehensive knowledge of Chinese politics so if you have your own thoughts, please do share!
Tl;dr: The PSC appointments signal an even greater influence of Xi Jinping over the next five years and possibly beyond. Consequently, whether this is good or bad is a function of Xi's competence and his true intentions. It isn't inherently bad, but a lot of care needs to be taken to avoid things getting very messy.
A long post dedicated to informing rather than a pointless pseudo-intellectual argument?
And from a TSR support team member, no less?!
On the subject of the new standing committee, the appointment of Wang Yang is a fascinating one for me. As you say, it helps to give off a more 'softer' image of the committee by appealing to more liberal types, but I've seen whispers online that it signals a check on Xi Jinping's power. The fact he had to place Wang into the committee in return for not see a clear successor placed in.
Either way I agree with you in that it's merely a populist move for Xi. Much of Wang's thoughts can be spun easily to appear supportive of Xi's policies. And I do think the overall composition signals that Xi is manoeuvring for a 3rd term.
It is the disillusionment with our democratically elected leaders that will push everyone into looking for a strong hand, that will be proportionate to the perception that there is nobody at the wheel. Central Europe is going through just that process, the more radical the problem is and the more radical the solution becomes. Poland's democratic status is under attack from their leaders but they have the popular base to stand on. So did Farage and does Trump.