The 2012 Chinese Leadership Transition

Editor’s Note: On an episode of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation’s China Forum series, Cheng Li discusses the transition process of Chinese leadership, the political jockeying among the Communist Party elite, and the public’s response to the political changes within the country.

HOST: On today’s program, we’ll be assessing the upcoming Chinese leadership transition in the fall of 2012, with the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party taking place at this time. As we know, seven out of the nine current Standing Committee members will be reaching retirement age in this coming transition. The anticipation of the large turnover to the fifth, incoming generation of Chinese leadership has led to a great deal of speculation on how this might affect party policy and leadership as well as the rippling effect this may have on the U.S.-China relations.

So first of all, Dr. Li, I’d like to ask you to give our audience a brief overview on how often these transitions take place, and what is the process that occurs when top leadership positions are handed over.

CHENG LI: Well, this is what the Chinese called the generational transfer of power. Like elsewhere, generational change of power does not occur that often. In China, it’s only occured three times in the PRC history. The first time – two times, actually – ended up, sadly and tragically, with the cultural revolution for the first, and 1989 Tiananmen [Square] for the second. The third generational transfer of power took place nine years ago in 2002 at the 16th Party Congress, which was remarkably peaceful, institutionalized, and orderly.

Now, this upcoming one will occur in a very interesting time. At least three things make this one particularly important.

The first one is what you just mentioned, that seven out of nine members of the Standing Committee – this is the most powerful decisionmaking body, the supreme decisionmaking body – will be changed. And also the same pattern in the government, in terms of the State Council: seven out of eight people highly likely will be replaced. Also, seven out ten members of the central military commission wll be replaced. So, that high level, with that kind of percentage is remarkable, or unprecedented.

Secondly, this is the time first time in modern history that China emerged as an economic superpower, or even the #2 most important economy. So, leadership change, and also possible policy change will have strong impact, not only to China, but also beyond the Chinese borders, particularly economic and social policy, and also foreign policy.

And thirdly, this leadership challenge occurs at a time when there’s a lot of change in Chinese society. There’s a growing resentment by various social groups – by middle class and poor people – and there is also serious concern about China’s future, and the direction – particularly, political direction – where China is heading.

Watch the full interview on the U.S.-China Policy Foundation’s YouTube channel »