Leadership Transition in the CPC: Promising Progress and Potential Problems

Editor’s Note: The following article originally appeared in China: An International Journal vol. 10 no. 2 (Aug 2012): 23-33. The journal is published by NUS Press on behalf of the East Asia Institute at the National University of Singapore.

The transformation of China from an all-powerful strongman-dominated political system to its current structure of collective leadership has generated new institutional rules and norms in elite politics. Over the past decade, top Chinese leaders have begun using the term “intra-Party democracy” to describe the idea that the Communist Party of China (CPC) should institutionalize checks and balances within its leadership. This development in turn has affected political dynamics and elite behaviors. This article reviews the CPC’s institutional development in the reform era and discusses the challenges and opportunities that the CPC is encountering on the eve of the 18th Party Congress.

China is in the midst of a generational leadership transition. The generational transfer of power has happened only three times in the history of the People’s Republic of China. The political succession from Jiang Zemin’s third generation of leadership to Hu Jintao’s fourth generation, which took place at the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2002, was particularly remarkable. For the first time in PRC history, the CPC leadership conducted a peaceful, orderly and institutionalized transition of power. It would be a great boost for the Chinese leadership and the whole country if this upcoming succession succeeds in the same manner despite the recent political crisis in Chongqing. The removal of Bo Xilai, a demagogue who was notorious for his hunger for power and his contempt for law, on the eve of the 18th Party Congress should not be seen as just another political purge in the power struggle of the CPC leadership, or as following the normal pattern of Chinese elite politics. Instead, one can argue that the new institutional mechanism within the Chinese political system is enduring enough to handle disruptive and destructive incidents such as the Bo saga. At the end of the day, another peaceful, orderly and institutionalized transition of power in the world’s most populous country would make the international community see Chinese politics with new eyes.

The importance of the upcoming succession is also reflected in the scale and scope of this leadership change. In the three most important leadership bodies in the Party, government and the military — namely, the Politburo Standing Committee, the State Council and the Central Military Commission — about 70 per cent of the members will be replaced, mainly due to their age. The principal figures responsible for the country’s political and ideological affairs, economic and financial administration, foreign policy, public security and military operations will largely consist of newcomers after the 18th Party Congress in the fall of 2012 and the 12th National People’s Congress in the spring of 2013. This upcoming power transition in the top leadership will likely be the largest in the past three decades.

Like many other things happening in China, the Chinese leadership change is a paradox of hope and fear. Hope — because this upcoming generation of leaders, the so-called fifth generation, is collectively more diverse in terms of their professional and political backgrounds, more weathered and adaptable from their formative experiences during the Cultural Revolution and more cosmopolitan in their worldviews and policy choices than the proceeding generations. They may contribute, in a profound way, to political institutionalization and democratic governance of the country. Fear— because both the growing pluralistic thinking in Chinese society and increasing diversity among political elites not only make consensus-building in the leadership very difficult, but also cause serious concerns about leadership unity and elite cohesion. Although Bo’s Maoist approach is somewhat extreme, ideological disputes within the leadership are real and they may become too divisive to reconcile. Policy differences may make the decision-making process lengthier and more complicated, perhaps even leading to deadlock. The removal of Bo Xilai apparently has reduced the chances for factional infighting to spiral out of control, but controversy about personnel appointments, especially regarding membership in the Politburo and its Standing Committee, can still be viciously contentious.This article aims to provide a balance sheet that assesses the areas of achievements in the CPC’s efforts to institutionalize the political succession process and the areas that will present challenges to the establishment of a sound, safe and sustainable political system that can meet the increasingly complicated needs of the Chinese economy and society. The article concludes with an argument that bold and proactive political reforms are greatly needed if the CPC wants to prevent more disruptive — and perhaps even violent — political change.

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