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China's Leadership Change and Its Implications for Foreign Relations

From: Asia Policy
Number 15, January 2013
pp. 56-61 | 10.1353/asp.2013.0005

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China, together with other countries, made fall 2012 a high-profile international political season. Right after the U.S. presidential and congressional elections, the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took place on November 8-14. In line with the CCP's charter, the congress elected the new 205-person Central Committee, and the Central Committee elected the new 25-person Politburo and its 7-member Standing Committee, although the members of the Politburo and the Standing Committee had in fact been agreed on beforehand. The new standing committee members are Xi Jinping (born in 1953), Li Keqiang (born in 1955), Zhang Dejiang (born in 1946), Yu Zhengsheng (born in 1945), Liu Yunshan (born in 1947), Wang Qishan (born in 1948), and Zhang Gaoli (born in 1946). They constitute China's new top leadership and will lead the country into the next decade, with presumably only minor changes in 2017 when the next party congress is held. This is a significant political development for the country and, given that China is a rising great power, for the world as well.

Under the Chinese system, the Politburo Standing Committee is the highest echelon of leadership. Its members, ranging in number from five to nine, hold the most important leadership positions such as president, premier, chairman of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, and chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference National Committee. According to the new lineup, Xi Jinping will succeed Hu Jintao and become China's new president in spring 2013 during the National People's Congress (China's parliament), while Li Keqiang, who is in line to take over as premier, will succeed Wen Jiabao to become China's new head of government.

For China, the significance of another orderly transition of power to a new group of leaders cannot be overestimated, given the once unpredictable, irregular, capricious practices during the Mao period. No doubt, this represents political progress and an embodiment of political institutionalization, as well as a consolidation of constitutional authority. According to China's 1982 constitution, holders of these key leadership positions serve for a five-year term with a maximum of two terms (i.e., ten years). The top leader, who is China's president, general secretary of the CCP, and chairman of the Central Military Committee concurrently, is required to step down as president after ten years in office, if not in just five years, and thus change must occur once a decade. Also, the practice of collective leadership has been firmly established, which prevents excessive concentration of political power in just one or two individuals. As a result, China's domestic and foreign policies have become more predictable. This makes it possible for the government to implement long-term strategies, as it has done over the past 30-plus years—one of the secrets of China's economic success.

There are two levels on which to look at leadership change and its dynamics. One is the institutional level, at which people operate within certain frameworks. Although institutional reform is possible, it often happens in an incremental way. The other is the personal level. At this level, leaders have discretion and can leave their own imprints during their tenure. Deng Xiaoping, for example, played a monumental role in the transformation of China, while leaders after him inevitably have changed from playing a revolutionary role to playing a more evolutionary one. However, vision and judgment still matter greatly for the country. That is why the experience and style of leaders are weighted considerably.

With political transition and leadership turnover, there come both changes and continuities. In China's case, I would argue that there will be more continuities than changes. Why? Preparatory work for the recent political transition had already begun five years ago at the 17th Party Congress, when Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang joined the then nine-member Politburo Standing Committee. Over the last five years, Xi was Hu Jintao's heir apparent and de facto deputy, and Li in turn was Wen Jiabao's de facto deputy. Working at the top level, Xi and Li accumulated experience in domestic and foreign policymaking that has better prepared...

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