The Leadership Transition

by Gerry Groot

The most important political event in China in 2012 was the Eighteenth Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (Zhongguo gongchandang dishibaci quanguo daibiao dahui 中国共产党第十八次全国代表大会). Meeting from 8 to 14 November, it marked the official transition of leadership from Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao to a younger and differently qualified ‘fifth generation’ headed by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. As China is a party-state in which party positions normally trump any other official ones, this meant that in March 2013, these party leaders would automatically take up equivalent positions in the government when the Twelfth National Peoples’ Congress (NPC) (Quanguo renmin daibiao dahui 全民人民代表大会) convened — making the Party Congress a far more significant event than the NPC, although the latter may be referred to as ‘China’s parliament’.

Because of this significance, party officials go to immense trouble to settle most matters relating to the leadership transition as early as possible through a complex series of internal discussions and vetting. As a result, it has become possible to predict who is likely to be promoted and to what level with a high degree of confidence. Yet the process by which the final selections of candidates to the highest bodies are made remains opaque. It may be influenced by the preferences of different factions and current leaders as well as those of other party power brokers including those who are retired.

The Great Hall of the People in Beijing during the Eighteenth Party Congress. Source: Remko Tanis

The Great Hall of the People in Beijing during the Eighteenth Party Congress.
Source: Remko Tanis

The 2012 transition revealed the extent to which the process of the transfer of power has become ‘normalised’. It has wide ramifications for the way that China will tackle such serious problems as economic policy, political restructuring and legitimacy, environmental degradation and many other issues. In all likelihood, the new leadership group will set the tone for policy-making for at least a decade and then influence the selection of the next generation.

Unexpected Twists

The Congress’s starting date, normally settled well in advance, seems to have been delayed by about a month as a result of the fallout from the arrest of the former Party Secretary of Chongqing, Bo Xilai. Bo was dismissed from office on 15 March 2012 after the arrest of his wife, Gu Kailai, who was later given a suspended death sentence for the 2011 murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. The trial of Bo Xilai himself, in August 2013, reported on the court’s official microblog, mesmerised the nation with its sensational revelations and accusations. (Among other things, Bo accused his ‘crazy’ wife of having had an affair with his former police chief Wang Lijun, currently serving his own fifteen-year sentence.)

At the time of the Party Congress, the leadership was also having to manage the repercussions from a fatal crash involving a Ferrari in Beijing in March 2012. The quick actions of the censors, who suppressed the names and details of the driver and his passengers and even banned searches for the word ‘Ferrari’, sparked rumours that the driver had been the son of a senior leader. Some speculated that he might have been the twenty-year-old son born out of wedlock to the powerful Politburo member Jia Qinglin.[1] But microbloggers worked out early on that the young man killed at the wheel was Ling Gu — the twenty-three-year-old son of senior party leader Ling Jihua, a close confidant of Hu Jintao. The identity of the two female occupants of the car were later said to be Tashi Dolma (Zhaxi Zhuoma), the ethnic Tibetan daughter of a deputy director of the Qinghai provincial Public Security Department, and Yang Ji, also an ethnic Tibetan and a student at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. (Yang died in hospital.) Microbloggers also reported that one or both women had been naked in the dangerously-driven two-seater car that, obviously, no clean government official (or his son) should be able to afford — the model sells for something in the neighbourhood of US$700,000. Some speculated that the woman who died in hospital was actually murdered in an attempt to cover up the details.

Suspicion that the stench of corruption lay over the tragedy resurfaced later in the year when a head of the state-owned enterprise China National Petroleum Corporation made massive payouts to the dead women’s families.[2] That the driver was confirmed to be Ling’s son after all prompted much speculation about what the scandal might mean for Hu Jintao’s influence in the upcoming Congress. Ling was eventually made head of the Party’s United Front Work Department (Tongyi zhanxian gongzuobu 统一作战工作部), which, though not an insignificant role, was, in effect, a demotion.[3]

A much more mysterious event assumed to have contributed to the delay of the Party Congress was the disappearance from public view in September for two weeks of Xi Jinping himself. Xi’s failure to meet as planned with both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was never officially explained, giving rise to rumours, some more fantastic than the next. These included that he suffered a back injury as a result of being hit by a chair in the crossfire of a fight among members of the ‘Red Second Generation’ (also known as ‘Red Boomers’) — the children of the first generation of party leaders, who have styled themselves as defenders of the Party’s legacy [4] (see Yearbook 2012, p.270ff for a discussion of this group). Other hypotheses included ill health, an assassination attempt and the less-intriguing but not unlikely explanation that he was simply snowed under with preparations for the Congress.

The Congress Confirms

By the time the Congress finally convened on 8 November, most of the important issues, including the selection of candidates for available positions, were settled. Following protocol, the 2,270 delegates representing the provinces, ‘autonomous regions’ and the People’s Liberation Army elected the prearranged 350-member Central Committee and endorsed the twenty-five-member Politburo. A Standing Committee was then drawn from the Politburo: it is this small group that includes the two top leaders and makes the country’s major policy decisions. The big surprise there was that the Congress reduced the size of the Standing Committee from nine, under Hu Jintao, to seven, under Xi Jinping. Xi, as Party General Secretary, and Li Keqiang (whose additional role as Premier makes him the formal head of government as well) are at its apex. Because the Party commands China’s armed forces, the Congress also confirmed Xi as head of the Central Military Commission. Below Xi and Li are Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli.

This fifth generation is, on average, younger than previous ones. Born between 1946 and 1955, they tend to be well educated and more broadly so than the engineer-technocrats they replaced. Most have substantial experience in running major government or party bureaucracies around the nation. Most are also very well connected within the Party, either by descent, like Xi, or by marriage. Short biographies of key members, ranked in order of their importance and bureaucratic status as inferred from the order they were announced by Central China Television, are as follows:

Zhang Dejiang. Source: Baidu Baike

Zhang Dejiang.
Source: Baidu Baike

Zhang Dejiang
Ranked number three in the Politburo Standing Committee, Zhang Dejiang (b.1946) appears to have a more orthodox or conservative communist ideological bent as indicated by his expertise on North Korea, where he studied economics, as well as the fact that he came from a military family background. In the late 1990s and early years of the new millennium he presided over the beginning of the economic boom in Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces, where he was responsible for suppressing dissent both in the media and among farmers dispossessed of their land by developers. A Vice-Premier, he also serves as the chair of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.



Yu Zhengsheng. Source: Baidu Baike

Yu Zhengsheng.
Source: Baidu Baike

Yu Zhengsheng
Yu Zhengsheng (b.1945) ranks number four in the Politburo Standing Committee. A graduate of Harbin Military Engineering Institute, he eventually rose through the Ministry of Electronics Industry and later Ministry of Construction. Yu has an extraordinary family background: a father who was once married to Jiang Qing (the woman who went on to become Mao Zedong’s wife); a brother who served as defence minister for the anti-communist leader of the Nationalist Party, Chiang Kai-shek; and another brother, a senior figure in China’s Ministry of State Security, who defected to the US in the mid-1980s. (The Times of London reported that Yu’s brother is rumoured to have been assassinated by Chinese agents in Latin America.) [5] Yu has close links to the former president, Jiang Zemin.


Liu Yunshan. Source: Baidu Baike

Liu Yunshan.
Source: Baidu Baike

Liu Yunshan
Liu Yunshan (b.1947) is a previous director of the Party’s Propaganda Department and is today President of the Central Party School and Chairman of the Central Guidance Commission for Building Spiritual Civilisation. Liu studied, taught and then worked for many years in government and party organisations in Inner Mongolia (including Hu Jintao’s power base, the Communist Youth League). Like most of the others, Liu is also linked by marriage to other members of the party leadership.




Wang Qishan, once a historian, now the Party’s anticorruption czar. Source: Baidu Baike

Wang Qishan, once a historian, now the Party’s anticorruption czar.
Source: Baidu Baike

Wang Qishan
Once an historian, Wang Qishan (b.1948) married a daughter of party elder Yao Yilin and has wide-ranging experience of governance, including three years as deputy governor of Guangdong province. Named a director of the State Council General Office of Economic Reform in 2000, he is often regarded as relatively ‘liberal’ — inclined to market-oriented solutions for some economic problems — in a system in which liberal (ziyoupai 自由派) can be a term of abuse and therefore potentially harmful to career prospects. Yet he is also known as an efficient troubleshooter or ‘fireman’ able to sort out tricky problems: he was made mayor of Beijing in the aftermath of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak of 2003 and the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. He is now also Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection — the body in charge of party discipline and investigating corruption.



Zhang Gaoli, economist and China’s highest ranking Vice-Premier. Source: Baidu Baike

Zhang Gaoli, economist
and China’s highest
ranking Vice-Premier.
Source: Baidu Baike

Zhang Gaoli
Zhang Gaoli (b.1946), an economist born to a poor family in Fujian, has helped to guide economic development in both Guangdong and Shandong provinces, and used the opportunity of the 2008 economic stimulus to modernise Tianjin, where he was serving as Party Secretary, and where he cultivated an image of accessibility and openness to public opinion. Some critics have accused Zhang’s reforms of being built on unsustainable levels of debt. He is currently China’s first-ranked Vice-Premier.

Two other key Politburo members, ‘reformists’ Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao failed to be promoted, defying expectations. Their omission was seen by some observers as a blow for reform — they were considered likely advocates of the sorts of reforms many Western observers think China needs. But the men (there are no women in the Standing Committee) surrounding Xi and Li seem well placed to rule China effectively within the constraints of the nation’s rapidly increasing social and economic complexity. Indeed, in many respects, the new committee with Xi at its head seems more empowered to bring about change than its predecessor.

It does appear that the retiring party leader, Hu Jintao, along with his supporters in the Communist Youth League, were less influential in the current appointments than Hu’s predecessor Jiang Zemin. Rules to force earlier retirements seem to have been of limited effect. The reduction of the Standing Committee to seven members was also unanticipated but whether this was intended to concentrate power or prevent certain promotions is unclear. As for signs of regularisation or institutionalisation of the rules of succession, this Congress seems to have been two steps forward, one step back — the seemingly abrupt reduction of the nine-member Politburo to seven being one sign that arbitrary decisions still play a role in the process.[6]

The National Peoples’ Congress

Xi Jinping, General Secretary and President. Source: Baidu Baike

Xi Jinping, General
Secretary and President.
Source: Baidu Baike

The convening of China’s two parliamentary type bodies — the NPC and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) (Zhongguo renmin zhengzhi xieshang huiyi quanguo weiyuan hui 中国人民政治协商会议全国委员会) — in March 2013 marked the final stage of the leadership change. The so-called ‘two meetings’ (liang hui 两会) allow for the changes in party leadership to be translated into their official state forms. Party General Secretary Xi thus became President of the People’s Republic, although there was one vote against his confirmation, while Li Keqiang became Premier of the State Council (Guowuyuan 国务院). Li Yuanchao — the head of the Party’s powerful Organisation Department — became Vice-President of the People’s Republic.

Li Keqiang, Premier. Source: Baidu Baike

Li Keqiang, Premier.
Source: Baidu Baike

The CPPCC is the highest manifestation of the Party’s ‘united front’, representing in a visible way a much wider cross-section of the Chinese public than do the delegates of the NPC. Only one-third of delegates to the CPPCC are party members. Its roles are to guide and advise the NPC and the CCP, reflecting the key concerns of the members’ constituencies (that is, religious believers, ethnic minorities, China’s so-called eight democratic parties, private business people, artists from the Peking Opera, actors and other groups that fall outside of the Party’s one-time key constituencies of ‘workers, peasants and soldiers’). Hong Kong’s Jackie Chan is a delegate. While just one person dared vote no to Xi Jinping’s accession to the presidency, 112 delegates either voted against or abstained from confirming Ling Jihua as a CPPCC vice-president.


The fifth generation leaders have already sought to set themselves apart from their predecessors. Acting on widespread anger about official corruption, one of their first policies was Li Keqiang’s pledge to curb corrupt use of public funds for things like dining and drinking on the public purse (gongkuan chihe 公款吃喝). As noted in the Introduction to this Yearbook, Xi further advocated keeping official banquets to ‘four dishes and one soup course’ [7] — a policy which reportedly has hit the country’s higher end restaurants hard and is even blamed for reducing the GDP. Designed to win back the public trust lost in cases like that of Bo Xilai and Ling Jihua’s son, a related series of declarations, slogans and policies include Xi’s promise to punish corruption from the ground up, or as he put it, to ‘swat flies and kill tigers at the same time’ (laohu cangying yiqi da 老虎苍蝇一起打),[8] as well as ‘confine power in a cage of regulations’.[9] These measures would tackle what Li Keqiang, echoing Mao Zedong, described as the ‘four work-style problems’ (si feng wenti 四风问题) of formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance (xingshizhuyi, guanliaozhuyi, xianglezhuyi he shemi zhi feng, 形式主义、官僚主义、享乐主义和奢靡之风).[10]

The other key idea — a major topic at both the NPC and CPPCC — is that of the China Dream and the renewal or revival of the Chinese nation. Xi has stressed the relationship of the two, insisting that the dream will be realised by maintaining the centrality of the party-state system: ‘Our system will be improved and the superiority of our socialist system will be fully demonstrated through a brighter future,’ Xi said. ‘We should have firm confidence in our path, in our theories and in our system’.[11]


[1] ‘Jia’ is also a homophone for the word fake in Chinese,


[3]That there was much dissatisfaction within the CCP about the way Ling had been saved became apparent when he recorded the highest number of no votes (90) to his selection as the head of the Chinese Peoples’ Political Consultative Conference, the highest organ of united front work, a body which is vaguely similar to an upper house in the Western parliamentary tradition.


[5] For more detail on these and other leaders, see Cheng Li, ‘China’s top future leaders to watch: Biographical sketches of possible members of the post-2012 Politburo (Parts 1-4)’ Chinese Leadership Monitor, 38 & 39, 2012

[6] For a discussion of these implications see Joseph Fewsmith, ‘The 18th Party Congress: Testing the limits of institutionalisation,’ China Leadership Monitor, no. 40.





[11] Chinese Radio International, ‘Profile: Xi Jinping: Pursuing Dream for 1.3 Billion Chinese’,