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The Forthcoming Transition in Chinese Leadership 2012 – 2013

07 Feb 2012

In October 2012, China’s established fourth generation of leaders will begin handing over power to the subsequent fifth generation of Chinese leadership. Understanding the dynamics of this internal shift in power, as well as the key interests and characteristics of the incoming leaders is an essential foundation for future engagement with China. It is also worth noting that the impending transition in Chinese leadership will possibly take place against the backdrop of wider global change, with French presidential elections taking place in April 2012, German federal elections in May 2012 and US Presidential elections in November 2012.

The change in leadership in China will see numerous new individuals occupy critical leadership positions across a wide range of vertically integrated and interlocking institutions of the Communist Party China (CPC), the Chinese State, and the Chinese Military. Xi Jinping is anticipated to take over from President Hu Jintao, as President and as General Secretary of the CPC and eventually as Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Li Keqiang is expected to take over from Premier Wen Jiabao as Premier, head of the state branch of China’s political system. Nonetheless, equally as important is the appointment of new members to the majority of positions on the highly influential nine man Standing Committee of the Politburo, as Xi and Li are the only two individuals who will be below the mandatory retirement age when the change takes place. Although, the National Party Congress is constitutionally the “highest organ of state power in China”, in the day-to-day reality of Chinese politics the Politburo is effectively the most powerful policy and decision-making institution in the country. Changes to the composition of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the highest-ranking military institution which overseas the People’s Liberation Army of China, are also expected to take place. Once again, mandatory retirement rules dictate that approximately seven of the ten man CMC will step down from their positions of leadership.

In China, there is no fixed process for the transition in leadership from one generation to the next and Chinese leaders commonly occupy positions within several state institutions, therefore the change over is expected to take place in several stages. First, it is anticipated that President Hu will step down as General Secretary of China’s Communist Party at the national party congress in October 2012. He will subsequently step down as President in March 2013. Traditionally, China’s President has also held the position of Chairman of the CMC, however President Hu’s predecessor, President Jiang Zemin, did not handover the position until 2004, two years after he gave up his position as President. It is therefore unclear as to the date on which President Hu will step down as Chairman of the CMC, although when he does he is likely to be succeeded by Xi Jinping, who is currently Vice Chairman. Premier Wen Jiabao and the rest of the Chinese government are expected to end their terms in March 2013.

Some of the individuals mooted to be appointed to the Politburo, alongside Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, include Bo Xilai, Wang Qishan, Li Yuanchao, Zhang Dejang, Liu Yunshan, Wang Yang and Yu Zhengsheng. One of the key issues to monitor is the degree to which these new leaders will shift the balance between the ‘populist’ and the ‘elitist’ factions within the Chinese Communist Party. Although China is effectively a one party state, an internal division exists within the party between these two factions. The ‘populists’ are associated with the current President Hu Jintao and the Chinese Communist Youth League and advocate balanced economic development in conjunction with enhancing the welfare of the poor and disenfranchised in society, where as the ‘elitist’ faction pursue rapid economic development that favours the growing capitalist and middle classes in China, at the expense of wider social issues. At present, both factions are roughly equally represented within the Politburo and it is expected to remain the case for the next generation of Chinese leaders, on the basis of the above named individuals. Nonetheless, the Standing Committee of the Politburo may gravitate slightly towards the elitist faction due to Xi Jinping’s affiliation.

Notable features of the incoming generation include their high degree of cross regional experience, wide array of educational backgrounds and extensive number of public appearances and high level meetings in the run up to their potential appointment. In addition, the incoming generation of leaders will be the first generation of leaders that do not have first hand experience of China prior to the foundation of the Peoples Republic of China.

For further details on the candidates for the fifth generation of Chinese leadership, as well as an overview of the key institutions within the Chinese Political System and the names of those who occupy positions within the current fourth generation of leadership, please download the full document on ‘The Transition in Chinese Leadership’.


As an independent forum, the Institute does not express any opinions of its own. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author.


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Dr Sheo Nandan Pandey says: 26 Jul 2012 8:16

Impending leadership change is likely to infuse talents in the management of the State and the interests of over 1.3 billion of the globe in no different way than their predecessor of the Fourth Generation of have done. This since the leadership transition has become a routine stage managed show after what happened in March 2012 in the case of Bo Xilai.The Cliche "whateverism" is key to the Chinese communist dispensation and shall remain with it until the political system get a measure of pluralism in letter and spirit. Dr Sheo Nandan Pandey Delhi, India

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