China’s weeklong National Congress ended Wednesday with its second peaceful leadership transition in the past 60 years, with Xi Jinping all but officially announced to take the reins of the Communist Party.
While the Congress announced a number of changes, Chinese leadership is expected to continue to be divided and weak.
The once-in-a-decade leadership transition will bring new faces to the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, as seven of its nine members—save Xi and expected-Premier Li Keqiang—will be retiring. The committee is also expected to cut its members from nine to seven in order to lessen gridlock as it has decision-making power over the economy, foreign policy, and other major issues.
A top general told reporters that exiting party chief Hu Jintao will also relinquish his sole remaining post of head of the military, which gives Xi more leeway to establish authority. Earlier successors have tried to hold onto posts and titles in order to exert their say over important governing decisions.
Still, Xi will feel the presence of former leaders, as many of the expected committee members are allies of Jiang Zemin, Hu’s predecessor. Xi himself is a Jiang protégé, while Li is under Hu’s influence.
The new Politburo members are mostly older politicians who may retire at the next Congress in five years. That would allow for Hu’s protégés, feeling left out, to resist Xi’s rule and campaign for the next leadership transition, political analysts said.
While China’s leadership may have an image in the rest of the world as decisive and all-powerful, the reality is that decision-making tends to be a slow-going affair.
“It’s a power game,” said Zheng Yongnian, a China politics expert at the National University of Singapore. “The Standing Committee doesn’t function well. They all have to agree, and there are too many checks on each other, so nothing gets done.”
If not gridlock, the incremental, step-by-step policy-making of the past comes as China confronts slowing growth, a large rich-poor gap, and a clamor for change, in protests and on the internet, for better government and curbing corruption and the privileges of the politically connected elite.
“Even for a coherent leadership, those problems are challenging, not to mention a divided leadership, which hasn’t consolidated its own power base,” said Zhu Jiangnan of Hong Kong University.
Xi will need to bargain with his colleagues who have their own allegiances and power bases. But like Xi, the rest of the leadership came of age as China reopened universities and opened contact with the outside world after Mao Zedong’s radical rule. So their educational backgrounds are more varied than those of Hu and the engineers he led, and they’re believed to be more open to progressive ideas.
China turned toward collective leadership after the ruinous later years of Mao, when he was worshipped as infallible and factions battled each other. Millions of Chinese died or saw their lives and careers upended in the persecution.
The victor in the struggle for power after Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping, sought to end the cult of personality and put China on the path of market-oriented reforms. He was the last strongman from the revolutionary generation able to summon alliances among the Communist Party, the government, and the military, and impose his vision on others. Ever since, each successive generation of leaders has been forced into painstaking coalition-building to get things done.
“China’s not a democracy, but the leadership is a not a monolithic group,” said Cheng Li, a Chinese elite politics expert at the Brookings Institute in Washington. “Balance is important because it’s in everyone’s interests.”