China’s New Leaders: The Fifth Generation



In the autumn of 2012 Beijing will host the 18th National Congress of the People’s Republic of China. Held every five years, it is here that the new members of the Central Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China (PSC) will officially be chosen. These new leaders will spend serve a maximum of two five-year terms at the heart of China’s policy-making process.

The Politburo is China’s highest and most important decision-making body, which determines domestic and international policy at a strategic level. As is widely documented, those chosen for leadership are not directly elected by the Chinese people, but by those in the Party Congress itself – over 2,000 people. However, even these 2,000 people do not have an entirely free vote on the matter, with outcomes ordinarily predetermined through negotiation and compromise long prior to any vote. It is for this reason that factions are of particular importance in Chinese politics, as the journey to the Politburo requires decades of allegiance forming and political jockeying. The two major groups in Chinese politics are commonly thought to be the Beijing and the Shanghai factions, with the traditional powerbase of the former being the Communist Youth League, and that of the latter being the South, i.e. the area below the Huai River.

Within the 25-member Politburo, power is concentrated in the 9-member Standing Committee (originally a five-member committee it has had several different forms, with the most recent expansion to nine members occurring in 2002). Although the exact process in which decisions within the committee are taken is not well-documented, a general consensus is normally sought rather than relying on a majority vote for any decision to be confirmed. The Standing Committee of the Politburo is therefore of the utmost importance both to Chinese domestic policy and on the international arena; these nine individuals – who have been exclusively male since the inception of the Standing Committee – will shape the policy of the world’s most populous country over the next five years.

This highest echelon of power is based in Beijing and meets weekly to direct domestic and international governmental policy. Election to the committee officially takes place at the Party Congress, which meets every five years. Realistically, most of those elected to the PSC will serve two terms, meaning that those newly-elected in November 2012 will likely rule the country until 2023.

The Fifth Generation

China’s leaderships have generally been referred to in ‘generations’, with each generation associated with the particular leader of their era. Thus, the outgoing leadership under Hu Jintao is considered to be the fourth generation, following Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin (though China has had three other leaders since 1949 – Hua Guofeng, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang – they were not in power for long and have been largely airbrushed out of official Chinese history). This Fifth Generation of leaders is exceptional in that it is the first generation in which there has been no clear successor groomed for leadership by one powerful individual, but rather will be a consensus decision amongst party leaders. Whilst the stage has been readied for Xi Jinping to ascend to the presidency for the past five years, this is more a product of his political maneuvering than his being personally groomed for the role by his predecessor. Indeed, it is widely believed that Hu Jintao would have preferred Li Keqiang to take the role.

The PSC has become increasingly important over the past 30 years, as the Chinese decision making process has moved away from the Maoist era concentration of power in the hands of one powerful leader towards a situation in which a consensus needs to be reached amongst a group of powerful politicians. During his tenure as president, Hu has been an advocate of ‘intra-party democracy’, and the recent downfall of Bo Xilai is testament to the view that the party is now always bigger than the individual.

It is expected that seven of the nine current members will step down from the Standing Committee as they will be over the age of 67, the age at which members are required to retire from the PSC. The highest echelon of the Chinese Communist Party will, therefore, welcome seven new faces, making this the biggest change in make-up of the committee since the founding of the PRC in 1949.

In this article, ChinaFolio takes a look at some of China’s leaders, potential and all-but confirmed, for the next half-decade, and analyses how each would shape the future of East Asia’s most powerful nation. It is worth noting that the positions each member might expect to be appointed to carry differing levels of importance but none officially guarantees Standing Committee participation.

Xi Jinping

Current Position: Vice President, Vice Chairman of the Military

Potential position in 2013: President


An engineering graduate of Beijing’s famous Tsinghua University, Xi Jinping looks certain to take the top spot during the leadership transition next year. Having been promoted to the Standing Committee in 2007 and named vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission in October 2010, it would appear that he is being groomed to follow the same path taken by Hu Jintao.

Son of Xi Zhongxun, a veteran of the Long March and a founder of the Communist guerrilla movement, he is part of China’s generation of ‘Princelings’ – sons or daughters of leading CCP cadres. Having held provincial leadership roles, his route to the top was aided by his appointment as party boss of Shanghai, allowing him to align himself with the traditional power base that helped launch Jiang Zemin to power in 1989. Xi’s almost inevitable victory can thus be seen as a victory for the Jiang faction over the Hu faction, as Hu hasn’t managed to endorse a protégé capable of securing the support needed to replace him.

Although not much is known about Mr Xi’s political views, it is said that he chose to survive by becoming ‘redder than red’, gaining a first degree in Marxism and a second in Chemical Engineering. He has kept his political cards close to his chest, and little is known of his foreign policy sympathies. In an unguarded moment in 2009, however, he was reported to have condemned “foreigners who have stuffed their bellies and have nothing to do but point fingers” – a thinly disguised swipe at Washington policymakers. He has been seen on several foreign trips in recent years, including a visit to the US in February 2012 where he met with President Obama.

Xi was previously overshadowed by his wife Peng Liyuan, one of China’s best loved opera singers, who has an official civilian rank within the PLA equivalent of Major General. Xi’s association with Peng has led some to suspect that he has more character to him than the famously dour Hu. This being said, as a career politician and a disciple of Jiang, it seems unlikely that Xi will rock the boat. Instead, he is predicted to continue Hu’s policy of China’s ‘peaceful development’ and hold to his predecessor’s mantra of stability as paramount.

Li Keqiang

Current Position: Vice Premier and Deputy Party Secretary of the State Council

Potential position in 2013: Premier


Previously a favorite for the top spot, but now ranked lower than Xi when they were both promoted to the Standing Committee in 2007, Li Keqiang now looks destined to succeed Wen Jiabao as Chinese Premier. Unlike some other members of this list, as the son of a low-level official from Anhui, Li comes from a humble background. Having been ‘sent down’ (i.e. sent to the countryside to ‘learn from the peasants’) in the Cultural Revolution, he became one of famous ‘Class of 77 – the first group of students to enter university after the end of the Cultural Revolution– when he won a place to study law at Peking University.

A popular figure on campus, he was interested in discussion of western political ideas and theories, mingling with future leaders of dissident circles. Although these democratic sympathies may have hampered his route to power, his intellect and political nous has ensured that he overcame the challenge of Wang Qishan for the vice-premiership. He holds a PhD in Economics, and was given the task of presenting China’s economic vision to international onlookers at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2010, and also during a European tour in January 2011.

Li appears dedicated to combat corruption, and was revealed in Wikileaks cables to be skeptical of government economic data. He has a very tough act to follow in ‘Grandpa Wen’, the popular prime minister who comforted the victims of the 2008 earthquake, yet he appears to have the intellectual and political clout to rise to the challenge.

Wang Qishan

Current Position: Vice Premier in charge of Financial Affairs

Potential position in 2013: Chairman of National People’s Congress (NPC) or Executive Vice Premier


Having seemingly lost out to Li Keqiang in the struggle for the premiership, Wang, a history graduate of China’s North Western University and an ex-governor of China Construction Bank, seems set for either the Chair of the NPC or the wide-ranging role of Executive Vice-Premier. He was highly praised for successfully steering China through the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, and is described by US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson as, “decisive and inquisitive”, as well as having a “wicked sense of humor”.

His economic credentials are impeccable and ought to point to a position that makes use of these skills, yet his political connections – boosted by his tenure as Mayor of Beijing from 2004-2007 – may see him rewarded in the more influential position at the head of the NPC. The position of Chairman of the NPC is particularly important, as it is the holder of this position that steps in for the president, should he fall ill or be deemed politically unsuitable for leadership, as happened with Zhao Ziyang following the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. It should be noted, however, that such an occurrence is extremely unlikely, given that no one individual holds supreme power and influence comparable to Mao, Deng or Jiang – the decision making revolves around a far more collective process. Whether it is as the helmsman of Chinese macroeconomic policy or at the centre of the party itself, there is little doubt that Wang will have a pivotal role in China’s next standing committee.

Zhang Dejiang

Current Position: Vice Premier of the State Council

Potential position in 2013: Chairman of NPC or Executive Vice Premier


A fluent Korean speaker and an economics graduate of Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, Zhang’s links with North Korea may prove to be of strategic importance during the potentially difficult period following the leadership transition in the rogue state. Zhang is in direct competition with Wang Qishan for the NPC chairmanship with the runner-up likely to receive the position of Executive Vice Premier.

Zhang is another member of the Jiang Zemin faction, and held strategic provincial roles in Jilin, Zhejiang, and later Guangdong. During this last post, his decision to clamp down on the circulation of information during the SARS epidemic in 2002 which allowed the disease to spread to Hong Kong and then abroad was widely criticized in China. yet by and large he has recovered from this embarrassment.

Zhang’s fortune has been greatly aided by the downfall of Bo, as he was made interim mayor of Chongqing. Evidently he was seen as a steady pair of hands by party elders, and an antidote to the boat-rocking Bo.

Relatively little is known about him personally, but his appointment in Chongqing would indicate that he is regarded as an effective leader who will tow the party line. Regarding his North Korean experience, it would seem unlikely that these connections will alter Beijing’s stance regarding its petulant ally, though his ability to communicate with counterparts in Pyongyang effectively could be enormously beneficial to China in the coming years.

Liu Yandong

Current Position: Vice Chairman of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Head of United Front Work Department

Potential position in 2013: Chairman CPPCC


Liu is the most powerful woman in the CCP and seems destined to be the first female member of the Standing Committee in its history, a feat that passed by even the hugely influential Wu Yi, who retired from the Politburo in 2008. Liu is a graduate of Tsinghua University and a close ally of outgoing President Hu, which has led some to believe that her sympathies lie with a more progressive or reformist route.

Her future position as Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (ostensibly an advisory and consultative body that is composed of representatives from various parts of Chinese society, but which has very little real power over the decision making process) is strengthened by two decades of experience at the United Front Work Department, during which she also received a Masters in Sociology and a Doctorate in Political Science.

It will no doubt be interesting to see how the Tsinghua clique, of which Liu is a part, interacts with a politburo set to be led by a majority of ‘princelings’.

Liu Yunshan

Current Position: Director of Publicity Department (formerly named ‘Propaganda Department)

Potential position in 2013: Head of the Publicity Department


A graduate of the CCP Central Committee Party School, Liu has spent a large proportion of his career in Inner Mongolia. Having been ‘sent down’ in his early 20s, he was later a reporter for Xinhua, the state run news agency, where he became a specialist in public relations. After gaining an expert knowledge of the official state news agency, he became party secretary for Inner Mongolia in the late 1980s.

He is a close ally of Li Changchun, the outgoing propaganda and ideology tsar who was cited in a Wikileaks cable as overseeing the 2009 cyber attack on Google, and is consequently viewed with suspicion by many international observers. The increasing number of internet users in China will complicate Liu’s task. As information circulates more freely, it is Liu that will oversee the upkeep of China’s internet security measures, ‘The Great Firewall’. This is an increasingly controversial issue both in China and abroad, making his position potentially more important than it might previously have been.

Though not a ‘princeling’ himself, Liu is grooming the next generation for wealth, if not power; his son, Liu Lefei runs the CITIC private equity fund which has capital of around 9 billion RMB ($1.4 billion). As head of the propaganda department, Liu Yunshan follows in the steps of Xi Zhongxun, Xi Jinping’s father, though exactly how close he is to the president-elect is unclear.

Li Yuanchao

Current Position: Head of CCP Central Organization Department

Potential position in 2013: Executive Secretary or Head of Central Discipline Inspection Commission


Once considered a potential candidate for the presidency, rival only to Li Keqiang, Li Yuanchao now looks like a candidate to take a lower-ranking position. Having graduated from Shanghai’s Fudan University in Mathematics, he later received a Masters degree from Peking University in Economic Management, and a Doctorate in Law from the Central Party School.

Li is another of China’s fifth generation of ‘princelings’, as both his parents were revolutionary leaders. But he has indeed shown a remarkable knack at ingratiating himself with the Communist Youth League (CYL), and is indeed popular within both camps.

He spent his early career as a teacher, and later became a favorite of Hu Jintao’s in the CYL. Hu’s endorsement is believed to have fast-tracked Li to becoming party secretary of the booming coastal province Jiangsu where he made his name. His political capital was particularly enhanced by China’s export boom in the 1990s.

Though he may have lost out in the race to the presidency, as executive secretary Li would still has the opportunity to be a very important figure in China’s next Politburo Standing Committee.

Meng Jianzhu

Current Position: Vice-Premier of Public Security

Potential position in 2013: Head of Political and Legislative Committee. Internal Security


A graduate of Shanghai Mechanical Engineering Institute as well as a capable economist, Meng looks poised to take over the role currently occupied by the highly contentious Zhou Yongkang.

His power is firmly rooted in the South, having held multiple roles in Shanghai before becoming party chief of Jiangxi – a promotion that was aided by his connection with Jiang’s close ally and former vice-president, Zeng Qinghong.

Meng’s résumé boasts harsh criticism of the Tibetan uprisings, which he called “the Dalai Lama clique’s intentional and secret efforts to separate the motherland and undermine Tibet’s harmony and stability”. With Meng in charge, it seems unlikely that China’s internal security policy will undergo any significant changes in the years to come.

Wang Yang

Current Position: Party Secretary of Guangdong

Potential position in 2013: Vice Premier and Deputy Party Secretary of the State Council


Having previously held Bo Xilai’s post as party secretary of Chongqing, Wang transferred to Guangdong in 2007. He is known to favor economic and financial liberalization, and has encouraged greater reliance on market forces rather than the state in Guangdong province. This move away from the planned economy has earned him the title of ‘young Marshall’ amongst his supporters, referring to his tendency to challenge the status quo. Wang has also developed a reputation for political liberalization, most notably in his response to the protests of 2011 in the village of Wukan; after a ten day standoff with villagers a resolution was reached under which the village was permitted to hold direct elections in March 2012.

Wang holds political clout as a particular favorite of both Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao, who will no doubt seek to ensure that their supporters are rewarded with positions of power in the next generation. Enjoying wide public appeal owing to his charisma and empathy, Wang appeared to be in direct competition with Bo Xilai for a place on the standing committee. Though he embraces media outlets to a greater extent than most Chinese politicians, Wang kept a lower profile than his rival. The relationship between the two was in many ways the most interesting of any two in this list, as these rivals came to praise each other’s very different leadership style, with Bo saying that he was ‘brimming over with true feelings’ after meeting with Wang in 2010. Wang didn’t go as far as his rival, but did express his strong admiration for Bo’s implicit role in continuing Chongqing’s modernization process.

In March 2012, when Bo’s fate was finally sealed, it looked like Wang had won the battle between the two. With Bo’s attempt to foster a cult of personality in tatters, it now seems evident that to future political aspirants that attempting to become bigger than the party is ultimately a self-destructive ambition. Wang’s decision to focus on economic development over political rhetoric appears to have been one of the deciding factors in his success, though Bo’s downfall was at least as much of his own making. With the ‘Guangdong Model’ having seemingly triumphed over the ‘Chongqing Model’, Wang may well be rewarded with a position as Chairman of the NPC.

Bo Xilai – The one that got away?

Current Position: none

Previous position: Party Secretary of Chongqing


The son of Bo Yibo, a former CCP revolutionary leader, Bo Xilai was once hailed as China’s first political rock star. Since the death of his father in 2007, after which he lost much political clout, he embarked on a widespread crackdown of organized crime along with a promotion of Maoist ideology in his jurisdiction of Chongqing. Residents received so-called ‘red texts’ – quotations from Mao Zedong sent directly to their mobile phones – and television commercials were replaced with revolutionary soap operas.

His apparent revolutionary sympathy received no comment from the highest-ranking members of the CCP, Hu and Wen, who do not court the media, and favor a more bureaucratic approach. Xi Jinping, however, did praise Bo’s tenure in Chongqing, which led some to suggest that Xi was trying to form his own clique composed strongly of ‘princelings’, the self-professed legitimate heirs to CCP leadership. Bo was popular in Chongqing where the reduction in the crime rate was widely acknowledged to be his biggest achievement.

As we have seen, his great ambition proved to be his downfall. As this smooth-talking showman tried to become bigger than the party, forces within Beijing worked to bring him crashing down. On March 15th 2012 he was formally dismissed from his post as mayor of Chongqing, and he is now implicated through his wife, Gu Kailai, in the apparent-murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood.

His ‘Red Revival’, once much praised in China, is now seen to have been nothing but a ploy to get a seat on the PSC. The entire episode has sent shockwaves through the Chinese political decision-making process, and with loyalty to the party now paramount it seems impossible that Bo will ever reach a position of political power again. Whether or not Xi himself has been damaged by the limited association he had with Bo remains to be seen, but Bo’s downfall is certainly the result of a behind-the-scenes power struggle that Xi would no doubt have preferred to have avoided at this crucial time.


The very nature of Chinese politics makes it incredibly hard to predict how the next generation of leaders will affect Chinese domestic and international policy; the only way to get to the top, as the Bo episode has demonstrated, is to tow the party line and keep your cards close to your chest. However, it seems reasonable to posit that the next generation of Chinese leaders will continue China’s modernization and economic liberalization process, and will continue to keep the focus on a balance of economic growth and domestic stability.

Although his wife may be one of China’s best-loved entertainers, Xi appears to be quite happy out of the limelight, and is more focused on delivering results than political rhetoric. With Bo gone there appears little chance of a return to personality politics, and the Chinese political system appears to be progressing towards the intra-party democracy advocated by Hu. If the transition is relatively stable, it will cement the process by which a leader serves for a decade before handing over the reins to the next generation. While this model is a long way from any form of democracy that those in the West would recognize, it would be a stable and formalized system that prevents a return to Mao-style one-man dictatorship. An interesting contrast is in nominally democratic Russia, where Vladimir Putin has returned to the presidency after four years as prime minister; if he serves the full twelve years he is now constitutionally entitled to he will be in power after Xi Jinping leaves office and his reign will have coincided with four ‘generations’ of Chinese leaders.

A crucial aspect of this progression towards a stable transition process will be whether or not the Chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) is handed over from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping at the same time as the presidency and position of General Secretary of the CCP. When Hu succeeded Jiang Zemin, he did not gain the chairmanship of the CMC until more than twelve months later as Jiang sought to retain some influence and power. As themilitary is not directly controlled by the state, but is actually answerable to the party, this post is crucial for any leader to consolidate their position.

With the next 5-year plan already in place, the first years of China’s new leadership will see a continuation of the policies already put in place by their predecessors, but the contents of the next 5 year plan, to be decided by this new generation and implemented in 2016, will depend on multiple external and internal factors.

Towing the party line and peaceful development are likely to be two of the key themes of this generation, but as the Bo episode has illustrated, the wind can very quickly change in the Chinese political field.