Anticipating Chinese Leadership Changes at the 17th Party Congress

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 6

Just as the U.S. political arena has begun to heat up in an off-election year, so too have Chinese politics become even more dynamic as the country’s political clock winds its way toward the convening of the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since 1977, the CCP has regularly held a Party congress every five years. The Party congress has often been an occasion for change in China’s top leadership and for new directions in the country’s domestic and foreign policies. Fervent jockeying for power among various factions on the eve of the Party congress is common.

The 17th National Congress of the CCP, which is scheduled to convene in the fall of 2007, will be no exception. Over 60 percent of the members of the Central Committee and about half of the Politburo members are expected to vacate their seats for newcomers at the congress meeting. With a focus on the prospects for changes in personnel, this essay examines arguably the three most important issues at this congress: 1) the scale and scope of leadership reshuffling; 2) the selection of Hu’s successor; and 3) the impact of personnel changes on the balance of power within the Chinese leadership.

An Anticipated Large-Scale Reshuffling

While the current top leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, will most likely remain in power for another five-year term, the new Politburo will consist of many first-timers, especially younger members who are in their 50s. This should come as no surprise, given that the average ages of the members of the current Standing Committee, Politburo and Secretariat of the 16th Central Committee of the CCP are presently 67, 66 and 65, respectively. With no exceptions, all members of these three leadership bodies are now in their 60s or 70s [1].

Among the nine members of the Standing Committee, at least four leaders—Luo Gan (72), Huang Ju (69), Wu Guanzheng (69), and Jia Qinglin (67)—are expected to retire. Nine of the 16 Politburo members are also 65 or above; and they will either be promoted to the Standing Committee or retire. Some Politburo members who are under 65 may also step down. In fact, the 16 current Politburo members were all first-timers when they were appointed to this leadership body in 2002 [2]. It is reasonable to anticipate that about 50 percent of both the 17th Politburo and its Standing Committee will be new faces.

Meanwhile, all but Liu Yunshan (60) on the seven-member CCP Secretariat will likely vacate their seats to younger leaders [3]. Although the leadership of the State Council will not change until the 11th National People’s Congress (NPC) in March of 2008, the candidates for the top positions will most likely be decided at the 17th Party Congress. Largely due to the age factor, three of four current vice-premiers and all five state councilors will most likely vacate their current seats due to retirement or promotion [4]. This means that the leadership teams for the country’s economic and financial administration, foreign policy and military affairs will largely consist of newcomers after this Congress.

A new team will likely replace current top economic and financial decision-makers, including Huang Ju (69), Wu Yi (68), Zeng Peiyan (68) and Hua Jianmin (67). The leading candidates are Ma Kai, Minister of the National Development and Reform Commission (61); Li Rongrong, Minister of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (63); Zhou Xiaochuan, Governor of the People’s Bank (59); Bo Xilai, Minister of Commerce (58); and Lou Jiwei, Deputy Secretary-General of the State Council (57). Some current provincial leaders, such as Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan (59), Tianjin Mayor Dai Xianglong (63), Shanghai Mayor and Acting-Party Secretary Han Zheng (53), and Chongqing Party Secretary Wang Yang (52) are also among the leading candidates for posts as vice-premiers in charge of economic and financial matters.

The CCP Central Committee (CC) will also undergo a large-scale reshuffling. At present, 68 percent of the 356 members (both full and alternates) of the 16th CC are more than 60 years old, and among the 198 full members, 88 percent are more than 60. Most of them belong to the so-called “fourth generation” of leaders. The turnover rate of the CCP Central Committee has been remarkably high over the past 25 years; newcomers constituted 60 percent of the 12th CC in 1982, 68 percent of the 13th CC in 1987, 57 percent of the 14th CC in 1992, 63 percent of the 15th CC in 1997 and 61 percent of the 16th CC in 2002 (Asian Survey, July/August 2002). Based on the current age distribution and the turnover rates at previous Party congresses, we can expect that roughly 60 percent of the members of the 17th Party Congress will be first-timers.

This upcoming Party congress will likely be the coming of age of the “fifth generation” of Chinese leaders, defined as those who were born in the 1950s. The fifth generation of leaders consists of many “sent-down youth,” who are often referred to as members of “the lost generation” of the Cultural Revolution. This generation of leaders differs profoundly from preceding generations in terms of their formative experiences, educational credentials, political socialization, administrative backgrounds, foreign contacts and worldviews. The collective characteristics and intra-generational diversity of the fifth generation of leaders will likely have a strong impact on the country’s political trajectory and socio-economic policies in the years to come [5].

Hu’s Successor Designated?

Rightly or wrongly, a great deal of public attention concerning the 17th Party Congress will be given to the issue of the selection of Hu Jintao’s successor. This is understandable because Hu served on the Politburo Standing Committee for ten years before taking the post of General-Secretary of the CCP in 2002. Hu’s previous ten year-long membership on the Standing Committee not only allowed him to gain leadership experience in the country’s highest political institution, but also placed him as the primus inter pares in the fourth generation in line to succeed then-President Jiang Zemin. Based on this political precedent, it seems necessary for the Chinese political establishment to identify Hu’s successor during this upcoming congress. With an adequate “reserve” period near the center of power, this heir apparent will be able to take over the top leadership when Hu completes his second term at the 18th Party Congress in 2012.

Largely because of the current Chinese obsession with age in elite recruitment, the heir apparent is unlikely to be chosen from the pool of current members of the Politburo. The youngest member of the current Standing Committee, Li Changchun, is only two years younger than Hu Jintao and the youngest current Politburo member, Liu Yunshan, is only five years younger than Hu. The CCP’s norm of promoting leaders in batches, within somewhat narrow age brackets, suggests that Hu’s designated successor will most likely be a new face in the 2007 Politburo.

It is unclear, however, whether the 17th Party Congress will select a single younger leader, the “core” leader of the fifth generation, to be the successor to Hu, or will choose two to four “rising stars” from that age cohort to wait in line for succession to the top posts in the Party and the state. This largely depends on whether or not a consensus or a willingness to compromise exists among competing factions, as well as the degree of confidence that the old guards have regarding the loyalty and the ability of the newcomers.

In recent years, Chinese public opinion has been quite critical of the traditional method of appointing the heir apparent. Top leaders’ recent rhetoric about the promotion of collective leadership and inner-Party democracy seems to suggest that they may choose to select a few leading candidates from the fifth generation rather than simply appoint one “core” figure (Wenhuibao, March 12). It is likely that two to four rising stars of the fifth generation will be promoted to the Politburo or the Standing Committee at the 17th Party Congress [6]. These potential successors will acquire more political capital, compete with each other, gain further endorsements from Hu and other top leaders and become more familiar to the Chinese public over the next five years.

In contrast to many democratic countries, where top politicians may not have much administrative experience in their previous careers, China’s political rising stars have usually been on the list of “future leaders” (houbei ganbu), prepared by the CCP Organization Department, for 15 to 20 years. Although no one, perhaps not even Hu Jintao himself, knows which younger leader will finally be appointed as the general-secretary of the Party, the pool of candidates is clear. As part of the norms of Chinese elite recruitment, the candidates for top leadership should be current members or alternates of the Central Committee, should have substantial leadership experience in provincial-level administration and should be more or less acceptable to all current top leaders and factions.

Among all the candidates, four leaders—Liaoning Party Secretary Li Keqiang (52), Jiangsu Party Secretary Li Yuanchao (57), Chongqing Party Secretary Wang Yang (52) and Zhejiang Party Secretary Xi Jinping (54)—are apparently the front-runners in the race for power. Their advantages over other potential candidates stem from their current administrative positions, broad leadership experiences, strong patron-client ties and educational credentials. For example, three of these four rising stars hold Ph.D. degrees in economics, politics or law; the other holds a Masters degree in economic management. None of them are entirely new to the Chinese public; all have served on the vice provincial and ministerial levels of leadership for about two decades.

The first three leaders have advanced their careers through the vehicle of the Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL), known as the tuanpai faction. They have been under the patronage of Hu Jintao ever since the early 1980s when Hu was in charge of the CCYL. Many other tuanpai leaders are also poised for promotion. Tuanpai leaders currently occupy one-third of the top provincial positions (Party secretaries and governors) and about one-fourth of the ministerial posts of the State Council and directorships of the CCP central departments. Some of them could potentially be dark horse candidates in the race for power at the 17th Party Congress [7]. With so many of his tuanpai protégés in line for promotion, Hu Jintao will, for the first time since he assumed the post of CCP General-Secretary in 2002, have his own team in the national leadership. Consequently, Hu should be able to move more aggressively to reshape China’s economic and socio-political development in line with his own vision and perceived mandate.

Zeng’s Retirement? The Next Phase of the Balance of Power within the Leadership

It has widely been recognized that in the 16th Politburo, Hu Jintao has been surrounded by Jiang Zemin’s protégés, known as the “Shanghai Gang.” Six of the nine-members of the Standing Committee have pledged their loyalty to Jiang rather than to Hu. This gravity of power, however, will shift in Hu’s favor after the 17th Party Congress. The recent removal of Chen Liangyu, a Politburo member and former Shanghai Party Secretary, reflects Hu’s growing power. The main challenge for the factional balance of power in China now is how best to constrain Hu’s power.

This challenge has become even more acute because Vice President Zeng Qinghong (68), a political heavyweight in Chinese politics and a prominent figure of the Shanghai Gang, may retire after the 17th Party Congress (China Brief, December 6, 2006). Zeng’s relationship with Hu is both competitive and cooperative. Zeng is currently in charge of personnel affairs in the CCP and he may decide to use his own retirement to set a good example and urge other senior officials to vacate their seats in favor of younger leaders. Yet at the same time, Zeng may promote several of his long-time friends to the new Politburo and its Standing Committee. Three of Zeng’s confidants, Hubei Party Secretary Yu Zhengsheng (62), Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang (65) and Guangdong Party Secretary Zhang Dejiang (61) are already in the current Politburo and one or two of them may be promoted to the Standing Committee.

Due to his own background as the son of a revolutionary veteran, Zeng has long been seen as a patron of the “princelings” (children of the high-ranking officials). Zeng may promote princelings such as Xi Jinping, Ma Kai, Wang Qishan, Bo Xilai, Zhou Xiaochuan and Hebei Party Secretary Bai Keming (64) to the next Politburo. Some of Zeng’s protégés from Shanghai who are not princelings, such as Director of the Central Policy Research Center of the CCP Central Committee Wang Huning (52), Jiangxi Party Secretary Meng Jianzhu (60) and Han Zheng are also candidates for membership in the next Politburo or Secretariat.

All of the leaders who are close to Zeng will likely seek to prevent the possibility that Hu-linked tuanpai leaders will dominate the membership of the next Politburo. Many of Zeng’s protégés have expertise and experience in economic administration, especially in finance, banking and foreign trade—areas in which tuanpai faction leaders are characteristically weak. The upcoming 17th Party Congress will test the political wisdom and the abilities of top Chinese leaders, such as Hu and Zeng. But in a far more important sense, it will serve as a litmus test to determine whether China is capable of taking further steps toward institutionalizing norms of leadership transition and power-sharing.


1. The youngest member of the current Politburo, Liu Yunshan, Director of the CCP Publicity Department, was born in July 1947 and thus will be in his early 60s when the 17th Party Congress convenes in the fall of 2007.

2. Wu Yi was promoted from alternate to full member status at the previous Politburo.

3. The other six members are Zeng Qinghong (68), Zhou Yongkang (65), He Guoqiang (64), Wang Gang (65), Xu Caihou (64) and He Yong (67).

4. Among the four vice premiers, Huang Ju (69), Wu Yi (68) and Zeng Peiyan (68) will likely retire, while Hui Liangyu (63) is more likely to stay. Among the five state councilors, Zhou Yongkang (65), Cao Gangchuan (72), Tang Jiaxuan (69), Hua Jianmin (67) and Chen Zhili (65) will probably step down and be replaced. Zhou Yongkang may be promoted to the Standing Committee to replace Luo Gan.

5. The upcoming two-day conference, “Changes in China’s Political Landscape: The 17th Party Congress and Beyond,” held by the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution on April 12-13, 2007, will examine various aspects of China’s political developments, including the implications of the coming of age of the “fifth generation” of Chinese leaders.

6. This largely depends on the total number of full-member seats on the Politburo and its Standing Committee. There is no rule regarding these numbers and they have fluctuated over time.

7. Among other tuanpai leaders in the provincial leadership, Shanxi Party Secretary Zhang Baoshun (57), Guangxi Party Secretary Liu Qibao (54), Shaanxi Governor Yuan Chunqing (55), Inner Mongolia Governor Yang Jing (54) and Tibet Party Secretary Zhang Qingli (56) are also candidates for Politburo membership.