Wednesday May 27, 2020


November 16, 2012

On Thursday, November 15, the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China concluded in Beijing with the unveiling of the new generation of China’s top leadership. The newly elected members of the Politburo Standing Committee, who hold the highest positions of authority within the Chinese Communist Party, were revealed as they filed onstage in the Great Hall of the People. The CCP’s National Congress convenes every ten years to pick the new generation of Party leadership. The 18th National Congress opened on November 8 with a speech from outgoing party chief Hu Jintao. Over the past week, the 2,270-member National Congress elected the 205 members of the Party’s Central Committee, which in turn chose the members of the Politburo, and finally the Politburo Standing Committee, the Party’s innermost decision-making body.

China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition has been highly anticipated in the months leading up to the 18th National Congress, with China scholars looking for clues as to who would make up China’s fifth generation of leadership and what the transition would mean for the future direction of China’s policy. As was widely speculated, the Politburo Standing Committee was reduced from nine members to seven at the 18th National Congress. The top two spots were filled by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, respectively, who were long seen as the front-runners for inclusion in the Standing Committee and are also expected to take over the top two positions of China’s government next year. Vice President Xi Jinping, who will take over the leading role of general secretary of the CPC Central Committee from Hu Jintao, is expected to assume the presidency at the meeting of the National People’s Congress in March of 2013. He is known for his market-friendly approach to economic development, and is also notable for his military experience and ties. Xi Jinping’s ascension to China’s top leadership post was greeted with some optimism by the Chinese public. China’s social media users in particular praised Xi for coming across as “more human” in his opening speech compared with his predecessor Hu Jintao, and for mentioning popular topics such as the problem of corruption and the need for better education and environmental conditions. Following Mr. Xi onto the stage on Thursday was Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who will handle economic issues as deputy party leader and is expected to succeed Wen Jiabao as China’s Premier. Analysts believe Mr. Li shares a populist policy agenda with his mentor, Hu Jintao, and will likely pursue policies related to increasing employment, providing more affordable housing and basic healthcare, and addressing regional imbalances in development.

The remaining five new Politburo Standing Committee members are, in order of seniority: Chongqing party chief Zhang Dejiang; Shanghai Party chief Yu Zhengsheng; head of the CCP propaganda department Liu Yunshan; vice premier of economic, energy and financial affairs Wang Qishan; and Tianjin party chief Zhang Gaoli. Liu Yunshan is expected to continue to oversee propaganda in his role on the Standing Committee and to maintain tight control over the media and the internet. Wang Qishan, who is known as “chief of the fire brigade” for his ability to manage crises and his skills as a financial problem solver, was also named head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Party’s anti-corruption body. In this role, he will likely be a leading figure in the Party’s effort to combat graft.

In a move that surprised many observers, Hu Jintao broke precedent and handed over his role as Chairman of the Central Military Commission, which oversees China’s armed forces, to Xi Jinping along with the title of Party general secretary, making Hu the first Chinese leader to peacefully and willingly cede all of his formal powers without political conflict. Hu’s move and the smooth transition of leadership at the 18th National Congress was hailed by some China scholars as an important precedent for the institutionalization of China’s succession process.  At the same time, the lineup of the new Politburo Standing Committee made clear that China’s former leaders continue to have influence over the succession process. While the members of the Politburo Standing Committee are officially elected by the Party’s Central Committee, the candidates are thought to be largely decided beforehand through political bargaining among the CCP’s elite. Analysts have observed that the new lineup of the Politburo Standing Committee represents a victory for the political faction led by former president and party secretary Jiang Zemin, whose allies and protégés, including Xi Jinping, filled 5 out of the 7 spots on the Standing Committee. This, along with Hu Jintao’s handing over the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission to Xi, will make it easier for Xi to consolidate power and potentially give him a greater ability to make needed reforms.

While much is still unknown about the seven men on the Politburo Standing Committee and the specific policies they are likely to pursue, it is clear that China’s new leadership faces a number of significant challenges they will have to address. The first of these challenges is the slowdown of China’s economy. In the last five years, China’s growth has slowed from a peak rate of over 14% in 2007 to 7.4% in 2012. Rising wages, a stronger renminbi, and a global economic slowdown that has limited export demand have taken a toll on China’s export-driven growth.  Maintaining economic growth will be a priority for Xi Jinping, for its connection to social stability. In his first speech as party secretary on Thursday, Xi laid out his domestic priorities, explaining that the Chinese people “wish to have better education, more stable jobs, more income, greater social security, better medical and health care, improved housing conditions, and a better environment.” In order to create a more sustainable model of economic growth in China, needed reforms will include shifting the structure of China’s economy away from a reliance on exports towards a greater role for domestic consumption, reducing the privileges of state-owned firms, and addressing the influx of rural migrants to China’s coastal cities. Li Keqiang, who be in charge of China’s economy if he succeeds Wen Jiabao as Premier next March, has called for structural reform of China’s economy. However, some analysts have pointed to his cautious and easy-going nature as a potential obstacle to sweeping economic reforms, if Li defers to consensus rather than taking a lead on combating the powerful vested interests in China’s economy like those of state-owned enterprises. However, Xi Jinping has previous leadership experience in the economically-advanced regions of Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, and his exposure to the development of the private sector and foreign investment may make him more willing and able to pursue policies of economic reform.

Party discipline is likely to be another major issue for China’s fifth generation of Party leadership. In his opening speech on November 8, outgoing general secretary Hu Jintao argued that addressing corruption within the Party was a key priority, warning, “Combating corruption and promoting political integrity, which is a major political issue of great concern to the people, is a clear-cut and long-term political commitment of the party…If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the party.” Xi Jinping also cited combatting Party corruption as a priority in his speech after assuming his position on the Politburo Standing Committee. The high-profile fall of Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai in February and the Party’s decision in September to expel him from the CCP and subject him to a criminal trial highlighted the problem of widespread corruption even at the highest levels of Party leadership. Corruption has become a cause célèbre among the Chinese public and China’s micro-blogging “netizens”, who have questioned how China’s political system allowed an individual like Bo Xilai to progress so far through the Party’s ranks without impunity. Recent reports in Western media of the wealth of Premier Wen Jiabao as well as the extended family of Xi Jinping have increased the pressure China’s new leaders will face to demonstrate to the public their resolve to fight official corruption.

Some analysts, including Brookings’ Cheng Li argue that the problem of corruption will necessitate political reform on the part of the Party leadership that could come in the form of opening up the political system for greater competition and rule of law. However, those hoping to see a more reformist fifth generation of Party leadership were disappointed when the two Standing Committee hopefuls seen to have the strongest track records on political reform, Guangdong party chief Wang Yang, and had of the Party’s Organization Department Li Yuanchao, did not make it in to the final lineup. The seven new members of the Politburo Standing Committee are generally believed to be capable in economic affairs and likely to pursue some economic reform, but otherwise politically conservative.  The absence of these key figures for political reform demonstrates an emphasis on continuity in the Party leadership and indicates that economic rather than political reform will remain the CCP’s immediate priority.

While domestic challenges will loom large for China’s new generation of leaders, the leadership transition also has significance for China’s international relations. The current fifth generation of Party leadership is known for being more cosmopolitan and exposed to the West, as well as for having more diverse educational backgrounds including in law, history, and economics. Xi Jinping has already made roughly 50 trips overseas while serving as Vice President, compared with Hu Jintao who traveled overseas less than 20 times as president and Party secretary. The changes from the fourth to the fifth generation of China’s leaders will likely have an effect on how China deals with the world, including the United States. Despite a trend towards pessimism and tension in U.S.-China relations, particularly leading up to the American presidential election, with new leadership now in China and renewed leadership in the United States there is potential for a new start in U.S.-China relations.


For more information on China’s 18th Party Congress, including profiles of China’s new leaders, please see the following news sources:

AP – “China’s military pledges loyalty to new leader Xi

BBC – “China confirms leadership change

CNN – “Xi Jinping: From ‘sent down youth’ to China’s top

New York Times – “Ending Congress, China Presents New Leadership Headed by Xi Jinping

Wall Street Journal – “Xi Inherits and Economy that Needs Work

Washington Post – “China’s new leadership team not expected to push drastic reform

XinhuaFull text of resolution on CPC Central Committee report


For Chinese language commentary on the National Party Congress, please see the following news sources:

Caixin (财新网) – “新一届中共中央政治局常委亮相

People’s Daily (人民网) – “胡锦涛、习近平等领导同志亲切会见出席党的十八大代表、特邀代表和列席人员并发表重要讲话


The World (环球网) – “国际舆论积极评价十八大 中国充满活力和希望

Xinhua (新华) – “习近平等十八届中共中央政治局常委同中外记者见面,



Compiled and edited by Amanda Watson.