China: Riding Two Horses at Once

Barring something entirely unforeseen, we now know the name of the next leader of China. The only problem is, we don’t know which name it is. That’s because, at last week’s 17th Communist Party Congress, a tightly scripted political convention that happens every five years, China’s leaders did something unprecedented: They named two potential successors to President Hu Jintao. The two men, Shanghai Party Secretary Xi Jinping and Liaoning Party Secretary Li Keqiang, were elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee. Because they are both rising stars in their early 50s, their appointment to China’s highest decision-making body marks them as the likeliest candidates to succeed President Hu, whose term as secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party is scheduled to expire in 2012.

Past successions have been much more straightforward. Due in part to his firm control of Shanghai during the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square, Deng Xiaoping chose Jiang Zemin as his successor. Likewise, Hu was elevated as the “heir apparent” to Jiang Zemin in 1992. Xi and Li have now been given an opportunity to acquire valuable leadership experience and political capital. But for the first time, two candidates will implicitly be competing with each other in the race to become the next Chinese president. In a political system that abhors uncertainty and extols stability, this is a significant development.

It’s too early to say how the competition will take shape. Xi and Li could make perfect partners; likewise, it could get ugly. The one thing that is certain is that these two men could not be more different. They belong to two competing factions, represent two different socioeconomic groups and geographic constituencies, and have contrasting policy priorities. The choice between Xi and Li, therefore, is about much more than sheer political power. China’s political and economic direction may well hinge on how well these men succeed—or fail—at working together.

Xi Jinping is the candidate of entrepreneurs and the emerging middle class. His father was the veteran Communist Xi Zhongxun, who served as a member of the Politburo, China’s second most powerful decision-making body, in the early- to mid-1980s. The younger Xi’s ascendance to the country’s top leadership reflects the growing power of princelings, leaders who are the children of former high-ranking officials. Princelings probably form a less cohesive network than other political factions, but their shared political identity and interests may push them to work together as a formidable elite group. (In the new 25-member Politburo, Xi and his fellow princelings occupy seven seats, in comparison with just three seats in the previous Politburo.) A majority of princelings have advanced their careers in the more prosperous coastal regions, as Xi Jinping did by serving as a top provincial leader in Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, the power base of former President Jiang Zemin.

Like most princelings, Xi has leadership experience in economic administration and favors pro-market reforms. In the provinces that he ran, Xi was particularly noted for his promotion of the private sector. His likely policy priorities lie in enhancing economic efficiency and promoting market liberalization, continuing China’s high rates of GDP growth, and expanding China’s integration into the world economy. Not surprisingly, Xi is popular with the foreign business community. But he has another thing going for him: Early in his career he served as a personal assistant to the minister of defense, making him one of the few leaders of his generation to have military ties.

Xi’s record is formidable, but he is not without his weaknesses. As with most princelings, Xi often scores poorly in intra-Party elections. In the election for alternate members of the 15th Central Committee in 1997, Xi received the fewest votes among the 151 alternate members elected. Both the Chinese public and the Party political establishment are often critical of princelings whose “helicopter-like rises” have more to do with political connections than performance.

Unlike Xi, Li Keqiang hails from a humble family background. Li grew up in Anhui province and began his career as a farmer. His father was a low-ranking local official. He overcame these obstacles, rising through the ranks of the Chinese Communist Youth League, Hu Jintao’s most important power base. Li served in the Youth League’s central leadership for 16 years, including five years as first secretary. Many new members of the Central Committee, the 300-member body that appoints the Politburo, are Li’s former colleagues, so he is not lacking political allies. Li’s ascension to the top leadership indicates the coming of age of the Youth League faction, known as the tuanpai. The new Politburo boasts eight tuanpai leaders, accounting for roughly one-third of the seats of this powerful leadership body.

Li’s ties to Hu Jintao go back nearly 25 years and he is among the most enthusiastic supporters of Hu’s call for building a “harmonious society,” which places top priority on reducing economic disparities, establishing a social safety net, and providing basic public health care. As Liaoning Party Secretary, Li Keqiang identified the tasks of building low-income housing and increasing employment as “priority projects.” Understandably, less privileged social groups, especially those in the vast interior and northeastern regions, have often viewed tuanpai leaders as their best advocates among the top leaders of the Party.

Yet Li’s lack of achievements as a provincial chief in Henan and Liaoning, combined with public perceptions about his “bad luck” may undermine his chance to become the top leader. Party cadres still remember the three mass-fatality fires that occurred in Henan during Li’s tenure as provincial governor and Party secretary there. His detractors say he has trouble making tough decisions, in contrast to Hu, who is known to play hardball when the situation warrants.

So, why has the Party put Xi and Li in competition with one another? Why would Hu not simply appoint Li, his protégé? Unlike the days of Mao and Deng, Chinese presidents today must govern by consensus, not by fiat. By selecting Xi as one of the two top candidates for his succession, Hu not only extends his own power network, but also undercuts any potential criticism of his political favoritism for tuanpai leaders such as Li Keqiang. Hu’s objective is to avoid the emergence of clear divisions and conflicting interests between princeling and tuanpai leaders, between the coastal region and interior provinces, and between the advanced economic sectors and the social groups that have lagged behind during the reforms. Accordingly, Hu allowed Xi to be in charge of party affairs and Li to be more involved in economic administration in an effort to blur the distinctions between two diverging career paths.

Indeed, a vicious power struggle between Xi and Li and the factions they represent is hardly inevitable. If Xi were to succeed Hu Jintao as secretary-general of the Party in 2012, Li might well be named the successor to Wen Jiabao, who holds the country’s No. 2 post. Xi’s new position as the highest-ranking member of the Secretariat and the anticipated appointment of Li as the executive vice-premier suggests such an arrangement may be in the making. For the next five years, under Hu’s watchful eye, these two potential successors may cooperate rather than squabble. Without question, Hu and the Party are making a big gamble. And, given the stakes, it’s a wager China’s leaders can’t afford to lose.