China in 2012: The Politics and Policy of Leadership Succession

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 2

Second Row, Center, Xi Jinping (L) and Li Keqiang (R) Poised to Emerge at the 18th Party Congress

In 2012, China will enter for the first time an era in which political leadership is held by people who do not have the direct imprimatur of veterans of the Chinese revolution. This will be important not just because it means they will have to work harder to establish their personal legitimacy as rulers, but also because it will open up wider possibilities for new thinking and bold policies.

The political challenges facing Xi Jinping, who will be installed as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in a succession scheduled for late 2012, concern both policy and government reform. Key benchmarks can be used to trace the implications of each of these three political stories of 2012—succession, policy and government—giving signs about the future direction of politics and leadership in China.

The Succession

There is little doubt that Xi Jinping will become CCP General Secretary. Under a succession process overseen by the party’s Organization Department under the “third generation” party leader Jiang Zemin, who was party general secretary from 1989 to 2002, Xi was identified as early as 1997 as the “fifth generation” head of the party after a broad-based vetting by the party of widely-admired younger leaders [1]. In that year, Jiang appointed Xi as an alternate member of the party’s Central Committee after the party rank-and-file failed to elect him to the body.

Since then, Xi has cultivated carefully his image and his alliances within the party leadership in order to consolidate his succession. Xi however lacks the revolutionary imprimatur of his predecessors. His father was a party revolutionary, but one who frequently butted heads with both Mao and Deng and is thus tainted in the minds of some in the party. The nod from Jiang, meanwhile, carries little weight within the party elite because Jiang did not fight in the revolutionary war and thus, even though he is a former top leader, he lacks the historical mantle of previous elders. Indeed, Jiang probably did not even join the party until after it emerged victorious in Shanghai, where he was a student, despite claims to the contrary. Hu Jintao, by contrast, was chosen by an ally of Deng Xiaoping and enjoyed Deng’s support, giving him a virtually untouchable position despite his gray personality. He too, however, will lack authority once he retires because his position was given as part of a new model of orderly, planned retirements of top leaders.

For that reason, the broader slate of candidates who join the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee in late 2012 along with Xi will be critical. Without key allies on the body, Xi will be unable to push his political agenda. In particular, Xi needs three key allies to join the body: Bo Xilai, currently party secretary of Chongqing, Wang Qishan, currently vice premier in charge of trade and finance, and Zhang Dejiang, currently vice premier in charge of energy, transportation and industry.

Those appointments will depend on some power-plays and evidence of a strained succession will be watched closely. Key data here would be media criticisms of the controversial Bo, whose heavy-handed attack on gangs and corruption in Chongqing (generally referred to as “striking the dark forces” or dahei) has divided party opinion [2]. Another key indicator will be whether Xi’s rival Li Keqiang, currently executive vice premier, retains his presumptive succession as premier or is passed over in favor of Wang Qishan and sent to chair the National People’s Congress. If so, it would be a significant blow to the balanced bipartisanship of the last decade with major implications for policy (discussed below).

The third data point to watch for is the appointment of one or two presumptive “sixth generation” leaders to the regular Politburo. The value of a predictable succession is not lost upon all party members and will be realized with Xi’s ascension in 2012. It however may be a one-off, made possible by the unique combination of Hu Jintao’s consensus-style and Jiang’s earlier choice of Xi as successor. If no clear “sixth generation” leaders are evident, it will imply a more competitive and potentially unstable succession is in the cards for 2022, when Xi presumably will step down.


For the past three decades, policy preferences among China’s leaders have been fairly easily divided into those who wanted to abandon most totalitarian controls over the economy and society and those want wanted to retain them. Today, however, those debates are over. The liberalizers won. Instead, the main policy division is between those who believe in a strong, nationalist state with a bare-knuckled market economy (labeled here “Leninist nationalists”) and those who believe in a harmonious, accountable state—albeit still led by the Chinese Communist Party—and an egalitarian economy (labeled here “Marxist romantics”). This divide is a return to the early years of the People’s Republic, when social progressives who believed in Marxist theories of social emancipation struggled against anti-Japanese (and anti-American) nationalists who were more taken with Lenin’s theories of political control.

The Marxist romantics, like Li Keqiang, usually earned their spurs within party organizations and in poor inland areas. The Leninist nationalists, like Xi, moved up through technocratic positions in government, usually in wealthy coastal areas. The Marxist romantics care most about social equity and party ideology, while the Leninist nationalists care most about national power and party discipline. Xi’s Bismarckian formulation, delivered in a speech in September 2011, is “state power and popular welfare” (guojia fuqiang, renmin xinfu) (Xinhua, July 21, 2010). Both groups play to populist audiences and both have elitist tendencies and backgrounds.

Xi Jinping has served only one term on the Politburo Standing Committee since joining the body in 2007. While his “two-step” elevation (bypassing regular Politburo status) was unusual, it had the advantage of limiting his time as a lame-duck leader-in-waiting.  Such time can neuter distinctive policy preferences because of the necessity of showing deference to elders and maintaining conciliatory relations with colleagues through incessant private meetings.  As a result, and especially if Xi gains extra allies on the Politburo standing committee, he will have more opportunity for advancing the Leninist nationalist preferences on public policy.

Like former premier and arch-Leninist nationalist Zhu Rongji, who famously threatened in 1993 to “cut off the head” of any local official who refused to honor postal money orders sent by migrant peasants, Xi wants to restore order to China’s domestic economy and society through a more powerful state. One key indicator of this in 2012 will be how and how much China’s housing bubble is exploded. A rapid and centralized deflation, as Zhu oversaw in 1993-1994, would indicate a restoration of central macro-economic controls.

By contrast, the policy issue that the Marxist romantics care most about is improving the welfare of the poor and rural. When Guangdong province officials under provincial party secretary Wang Yang stepped in to defuse a 30-month long standoff between villagers in Wukan village in December, the People’s Daily said the effort “embodies the abiding mission of our party to take responsibility for the public’s interests" (December 22, 2011). Wang has extended rights and privileges to Guangdong’s migrant workers, 35 percent of the provincial population. The Guangdong model of the Marxist romantics (a concrete version of the universal values model or pushi jiazhi moshi) contrasts with Bo Xilai’s Chongqing model of the Leninist nationalists (a concrete version of the China Model or zhongguo moshi). Shifts in the migrant worker policies in 2012 either in Guangdong or nationally will be a good indicator of this policy balance.

Another will be whether steps are taken to stop the spiraling use of transferring, leasing, and mortgaging rural land-use rights. This pits the Leninist nationalists, who are suspicious of the 2008 law allowing the practice, against the Marxist romantics, who believe it is essential to rural prosperity. About 16 percent of the country’s contracted arable land had been used for such purposes by the end of 2011.

Finally, a draft climate change law may be released by the NDRC for consideration by the NPC. The contents of that law will be closely watched for whether they contain provisions that allow for coercive actions against emissions and whether they allow for a right of public participation in formulating (rather than just implementing) policies. The Leninist nationalists believe that China’s “authoritarian environmentalism” is the way forward, but the Marxist romantics believe it is ineffective in delivering results [3].


The basic split between the two groups also extends to the question of how to organize government in an increasingly complex and fractious society. Middle class and nationalist anxieties about a lack of central state capacity to control local government mountain rebels (shandai wang) and state enterprise oligarchs (guoqi zongjingli) are rising. There is a sense among the middle class that China is experiencing its “Yeltsin years” and needs a Putin with “tough tactics” (qiangying shouduan) to restore central authority [4]. Li Keqiang however is not seen by the Leninist nationalists as having the charisma (poli) and iron fist of Putin, much less of Zhu Rongji—whose memoirs of his attempted recentralization of powers as vice premier and then premier from 1991 to 2003 were released in 2011 [5].

The Marxist romantics are keener on political reforms—as Wang Yang has done in Guangdong—because they see some modest forms of citizen participation such as public hearings and a relatively autonomous and critical media as inherent in the developmental process. Wen Jiabao has on two occasions emphasized his close personal ties to the late Hu Yaobang, considered in Chinese politics the epitome of the Marxist with an honest concern for the people and their rights and welfare even at the expense of state power. As good universalists, Marxist romantics embrace universal values, as Wen has stressed. They reject the “China Model” of particular national development strategies led by a wise state. The Leninist nationalists, by contrast, see participation as something that is achieved at the end of the developmental process—much as Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek argued for a period of tutelary democracy (jianhu minzhu) in the period of early development.

Wen has attempted to radically reform the system of “administrative examination and approval” (xingzheng shenpi) in everything from consumer products to lending and financial regulation. This drive dates from 2001 when China’s WTO entry brought new pressures to reduce red-tape in economic regulation and a cabinet-level leading group was established. Wen has taken it beyond WTO commitments to include public administration in general. In November, he claimed that since WTO entry, the State Council had eliminated or reduced 2,200 of the 3,600 items it originally needed to approve (Xinhua, November 14, 2011).

Wen’s emphasis has been on market forces and social autonomy—good Marxists after all believe in the forces of history rather than the force of man and in their ideals are not far from Tocquevillian conservatives. The rush to regulate, by contrast, is more associated with the Leninist nationalists who cater to middle class anxieties about “chaos” (luan). In this trench warfare over regulation we can see two visions of China’s future. A key indicator for 2012 will be whether the administrative examination and approval reductions movement is wrapped up or continued.

The preferred administrative reforms of the Leninist nationalists relate to the pitched battle over “performance management” (jixiao guanli). This is a system of government reform that creates data-driven assessments of government performance gathered by separate internal agencies rather than just the old reporting of outputs by the units themselves. It plays to the Leninist nationalist desire for organization and control, but is criticized by the Marxist romantics for its inability to measure results [6]. It is held out by proponents in China as the magical bullet for everything from the misappropriation of funds and the lax enforcement of building standards to local violations of central rules and cronyism in cadre appointments. The system was launched formally on an experimental basis by the State Council in eight provincial governments and six central ministries in mid-2011 (Caixin, June 30, 2011; June 10, 2011. Last October, Sun Zhengcai, the party secretary of Jilin, one of the experimental provinces, said performance management would aid in “improving the Party’s leadership, the transformation of government functions, the party’s cohesion, the government’s credibility, cadres’ executive force and the overall binding force of the political system” (Jilin Provincial Government, October 25, 2011).

For Marxist romantics, the performance management system focuses too much on measurable government performance and not enough on citizen views and policy impacts. It offers accountability to the party and to internal monitors, but not accountability to the people. For many critics, it is redolent of the Stalinist economy with its input-output tables. The fate of those experimental units will be another key indicator to watch in 2012 for clues about the direction of China’s political future.


  1. Hu Jintao leads the “fourth generation” while Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping headed the first two, respectively.
  2. For critiques, see Guo Ping, “Cong sifa chengxu zhengyi kan “Chongqing dahei” yu woguode xianzheng jianshe” [A View of the Chongqing Strike on Dark Forces and the Construction of Constitutional Government in China From the Perspective of Legal Procedual Fairness], Fazhi yu Shehui [Legal System and Society], No. 5, 2011, pp. 157—158; Wang Junmin, “Zhongguo fazhi lujing zhengyizhi bianxi – you “Chongqing dahei” yinfade sikao” [Debates on the Future of China’s Legal Road—Thoughts Inspired by Chongqing’s Strike on Dark Forces], Huadong zhengfa daxue xuebao (Journal of the East China University of Political Science and Law), No. 2, 2011, pp. 97–104
  3. Chen Demin and Huo Yatao, “Woguo jieneng jianpaizhongde gongzhong canyu jizhi yanjiu” [Public Participation in Energy-Saving and Emission-Reductions in China), Keji jinbu yu duice [Science and Technology Progress and Policy] Vol. 27, No. 6, 2010, pp. 86–89.
  4. Tang Ling, “Pujing gaigede tedian jiqi qianjing zhanwang” [The Unique Aspects, Outlook, and Prospects for Putin’s Reforms], Chanye yu keji luntan [Industrial & Science Tribune], No. 7, 2011, pp. 8–9.
  5. Zhu Rongji, Zhu Rongji Jianghua Shilu [The Authentic Speeches of Zhu Rongji], Beijing: People’s Press, 2011.

Table 1. Scoring China’s Succession, Policy and Government Challenges


Key Question

Evidence to Watch For



Xi Jinping Majority

Whether enough close allies of Xi Jinping make it onto the PBSC to give him a majority.

Key figures would be Bo Xilai,Wang Qishan, and Zhang Dejiang.

More powerful Xi regime and more nationalist and state-directed policies

Sixth Generation

Agreement on a successor candidate list for the 2022 succession

Leaders under the age of 50 placed on the Politiburo or its Standing Committee

Greater stability for next succession

Factional Struggles

Attempts by key actors to upset the leadership deliberations on succession

Expressions of preference by the military on the succession; Failure of Li Keqiang to become premier; Official media criticisms of Bo Xilai.

Less stability in new leadership; more centrifugal tendencies in elite politics


Equity and Rights

Extension of rights and privileges to migrant workers against middle class preferences

Migrant worker provisions enacted into law or regulations

Shift to equity in policy priorities

Urban Property

Ending of the property bubble

Use of decisive fiscal and monetary policy to reduce property prices

Re-emergence of centralized macro-economic power

Rural Property

Limits on rural land-use rights

Controls on transfer, lease, and mortgage of rights

Re-assertion of Leninist controls over rural populations through land

Climate Change

Passage of climate change law

Coercive emissions controls; participatory mechanisms

Consolidation or decay of authoritarian environmentalism


Performance Management

Debate on using objective data rather than popular approval to rate governments

Performance management experiments extended to more governments and departments

Emphasis on efficiency over accountability

Administrative Examination and Approval

Efforts to reduce administrative regulation of economy and society

Continuation of  State council leading group under new premier

Balance of priorities between  state downsizing and state rebuilding