UPDATE! Predictions and guesses for China’s 5th Generation Politburo Standing Committee

by Alison Reynolds, Executive Director, International Tibet Network

    In May this year I shared some thoughts about who among China’s 5th generation leaders was in line for promotion. Now we know the leadership handoever will start on 8 November, it’s time for an update.

    Firstly some issues, which seemed reasonably settled, may not in fact be so:
    * Widespread support from the Party for Xi Jinping as future General Secretary. Until the beginning of September, Xi’s position seemed unassailable, but his re-appearance after an absence of two-weeks (speculated to be due to ill-health, a political crisis or a combination of the two) brought more questions than answers. Again according to Malcolm Moore in the Daily Telegraph, Xi was under intense pressure from within the Communist Party just prior to his disappearance. “At the Beidaihe [leaders’] meeting, no decisions were made but the old gang criticised Xi harshly….”They called him unreliable and even brought up the idea of significantly delaying the party congress,” said [a] source. “The fight was so harsh that Jiang Zemin had to mediate.”

    * Number of Seats. It’s still unknown whether the future Politburo Standing Committee will have seven seats or nine. An argument put forward by China-watchers in favour of reducing the seats is that a smaller Committee would facilitate more general decision-making, reducing the separation of different areas of responsibility. A more specific argument (reported by Reuters) is that removing the role of internal security chief from the Standing Committee may reflect fears that the position – currently held by Zhou Yongkang – has become too powerful.

    * Influence of Party Elders. Since May there have also been a number of reports about the efforts of both Hu Jintao and his predecessor Jiang Zemin (the rumours of whose death were grossly exaggerated) to exert their continued influence by stacking the future leadership with their protégés. The consensus seems to be that Jiang has won out over Hu. The likely list of future Politburo Standing Committee members below contains protégés of both men, but talk of Hu allies Li Keqiang being made a Vice-Chair of the Central Military Commission, and Hu Chunhua getting a Politburo Standing Committee seat seem destined to fail, at least for now. Furthermore, Hu’s Chief of Staff, Ling Jihua, was removed from Director of the Central Committee General Office and reassigned to the United Front Work Department. Although technically a demotion (at least in part because his son was killed in scandalous circumstances), Ling’s new position might however give Hu the means to exert influence over Tibet policy in the future.

    So here is my updated list of “tips for the top”, with thanks to the many eminent China watchers whose analysis makes for fascinating reading.

    * Xi Jinping, who despite his mysterious recent absence seems to be still on track for the top job.

    * Li Keqiang, Hu Jintao’s most senior protégé, who remains likely to replace outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao.

    * Wang Qishan: currently a Vice Premier, well connected (an honorary “cousin” of US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner) and regarded as a high calibre problem-solver. With his broad experience he is talked of as a rival to Li Keqiang, as a possible Chair of the National People’s Congress or as Vice President.

    * Li Yuanchao: Li is China’s personnel officer, running the vast, faceless and hugely powerful Organisation Department, which decides where Party Members will be placed. Li is one of several ‘princelings’ in the running for the Politburo Standing Committee; he is considered a protégé of Hu Jintao, but he also has links to Shanghai and seems to enjoy widespread support.

    * Zhang Dejiang: one of four Vice-Premiers. Seen as a trusted ally of Jiang Zemin, Zhang recently replaced Bo Xilai as Party Secretary of Chongqing. The South China Morning Post thinks he’ll take over the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee.

    * Yu Zhengsheng: Yet another princeling, regarded as a protégé of both Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. Party Secretary of Shanghai, The South China Morning Post reports that he’ll take over the National People’s Congress, but Cheng Li tips him for the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee.

    * Zhang Gaoli: Party Secretary of Tianjin and yet another protégé of Jiang Zemin.

    Among those I tipped in May were the following, whose chances are likely to diminish if the Politburo Standing Committee seats are reduced to seven:
    * Wang Yang: currently Party Secretary of Guangdong, Wang gained fame as Party chief in Chongqing for economic development, coupled with a rational and humane response to protest and liberalization of control of media. He adopted a similar approach in Guangdong, sometimes openly against Beijing policies. But he is relatively young, which may mean he has to wait five years.

    * Liu Yunshan: as the head of the Propaganda Department, Liu must have considered his chances were fairly good of succeeding Li Changchun as China’s Propaganda Tsar, but the same divisions of responsibility may not exist in the future. He has certainly been a loyal implementer of Li Changchun’s propaganda strategies.

    * Liu Yandong: China’s most senior woman politician, Liu’s career encompassed leading roles in the Communist Youth League, (she is a protégé of Hu Jintao), and United Front Work Department. She’s on the verge of retirement and a smaller Standing Committee just may not find space for a woman.

    * Meng Jianzhu: currently the Minister for Public Security, Meng was potentially a beneficiary of the sacking of Bo Xilai (who some predicted was in line for the Law and Order portfolio on the Politburo Standing Committee), and the reported sidelining of public security tsar Zhou Yongkang.

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