How is China choosing its new leaders?

Given China's powerful economy and increasing military clout, there is heightened international interest in the country's upcoming change in leadership. The handover of power, which begins at the meeting of the 18th National Party Congress in Beijing on Nov. 8, is both complicated and enigmatic.

One-party system relies on elaborate succession plan

Power handover in China

10 years ago
Duration 2:14
The handover of power in China, which begins at the meeting of the 18th National Party Congress in Beijing today, is both complicated and enigmatic

Given China’s powerful economy and increasing military clout, there is heightened international interest in the country’s upcoming change in leadership.

The handover of power in China, which begins at the meeting of the 18th National Party Congress in Beijing on Nov. 8, is both complicated and enigmatic.

The Chinese government is a one-party system run by the Chinese Communist Party. Like Russia, China has both a president and a premier (also referred to as prime minister).

The president, currently Hu Jintao, is the country’s head of state and "paramount leader."

The premier, currently Wen Jiabao, is the chief administrator, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the nation.

Term limit

After the 41-year reign of Mao Zedong, which ended in 1976, the party leadership took steps to impose a term limit for the country’s highest office. It was during Deng Xiaoping’s tenure as paramount leader (1978-1992) that the presidency was capped at two five-year terms.

Every five years, the party holds a congress that sets the policy agenda until the next congress. In addition to electing a new president and premier, the 18th congress will determine the make-up of the party’s central committee (currently 371 members), the Politburo (25 members) and the Politburo’s standing committee (nine members), which comprises the most powerful people in China.

It is believed that once the 2012 congress adjourns — which could be more than a week from now — Xi Jinping will emerge as China’s new president and Li Keqiang its new premier. But because the party elite is deliberately unforthcoming and the congress itself is a secretive affair, nobody can say for sure.

What we do know is that the rise to power involves a lengthy apprenticeship.

How candidates are groomed

Anyone who aspires to hold the highest office in China must first become a delegate at the party’s national congress.

Most of the approximately 2,000 delegates are elected at the various rungs of government, from the township level up to county, city and prefecture. These elections take place in between party congresses, and are voted on by the approximately 70 million official members of the Chinese Communist Party.

Leadership candidates are groomed for decades. In order to expand their knowledge and to give them a breadth of managerial experience, candidates are assigned to a variety of administrative positions and locales across this country of 1.3 billion people.

Xi Jinping, who joined the Communist Party in 1974, has held a selection of posts, including deputy secretary of a CCP committee in Zhengding County in Hebei province, deputy governor of Fujian province and party chief in Shanghai. 

But a candidate’s rise to power depends as much on making alliances within the party as building an impressive portfolio. During their apprenticeship, candidates develop not only their administrative skills but a base of support within the party that could help them achieve a future leadership role.

The final step prior to making the highest office is serving on the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the most powerful group in the country.

Chinese paramilitary policemen guard the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing, China. The 18th National Party Congress will be convening on Nov. 8. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

Hu Jintao brought Xi Jinping onto the PSC in 2007, a move that many observers saw as indicative of Xi’s presidential future.

‘The successor’s dilemma’

In lieu of democratic elections, leadership change in China involves an elaborate succession plan.

Because it is an autocratic state that puts a great emphasis on honour, the country has had to contend with "the successor’s dilemma," says Yongjing Zhang, a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

Zhang says that if the presumptive successor is seen as too aggressive or self-aggrandizing, he could "threaten the ruling base of the current leader." He points to Lin Biao, who died in a mysterious plane crash in 1971 after what appears to have been a thwarted attempt to topple Mao Zedong (through assassination).

Inversely, "If the successor is too weak when he assumes power, then he won’t be able to maintain his power stably," says Zhang, citing the case of Hua Guofeng, who was handpicked by Mao to succeed him in 1976, but was largely seen as ineffectual and was ousted in 1981.

Since the 1980s, the party has made an effort to avoid volatile candid

ates by aiming for consensus when choosing the next leader.

The role of honour

Integrity and outward appearances are important considerations in the nomination of a Chinese presidential candidate. In the run-up to the leadership vote, the nominal candidates are expected to avoid controversy of any kind, which is why the Bo Xilai affair has been so scandalous. 

A former party chief in Chongqing who was once tipped for the top job, Bo was disgraced this year after becoming implicated in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood (and a subsequent cover-up).

Bo was expelled from the party in September after being accused of abuse of power and taking bribes. His wife received a suspended death sentence for the murder.

Zhang says that honour and not giving offense to the older generation are important principles in Chinese culture, and the leadership process reflects that.

"When [then-president] Jiang Zemin introduced [current president] Hu Jintao to the press in 1992, he said, ‘This is a young man,’ not ‘This is the young man,’ in the standing committee of the Politburo," Zhang points out.

By hinting publicly at the identity of his successor, Jiang would have risked affronting other members of the party elite, says Zhang. 

Playing coy

By the same token, while media speculation has focused on Xi Jinping as the country’s next president, none of the current party leaders have publicly confirmed that.

Given the party elite’s reluctance to announce the next leader prematurely, China watchers have come to read the signals.

Juan Wang, a political science professor at the McGill University, says Xi’s growing visibility in high-profile domestic and international meetings is a hint that he is likely to be the next leader.

She says there are even subtler signs.

"When you see in the news the person who walks [into a room] first, that’s a sign of the ranking of the people. So you start to get a signal that he’s going to be the next leader," says Wang.

Wang adds that there are different factions among the members of the party elite based on family ties, the offices they served or the region they’re from.

But when it comes to announcing the new leader and the new political agenda, the party must present a united front.

"Regardless of these factions, what happens in the end, there has to be a consensus, a publicized consensus," Wang says.

"Nobody dares to have a different voice in public."

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