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Getting Ahead in the Politburo: Predicting who will be enthroned in China’s 19th Party Congress

By Chutian Zhou | November 3, 2016

Photo: Xinhua News Agency

The year of 2016 is unambiguously an eventful one.

People who care about Asia-Pacific affairs have witnessed Tsai Ing-wen enter Taiwan’s Presidential Office Building. Soon, the White House in the United States will welcome its 45th host. As for China, a country that always keeps a low profile with respect to the “election” of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) central leadership, the 6th Plenary Session of the 18th CCP Central Committee will soon convene in Beijing. This is generally the CCP’s last plenary session before it holds the next round National Congress of the CCP (next year it will be the 19th Party Congress). It is common sense that important decisions are in practice made before the Party Congress, implying the leadership change will become a pivotal agenda during the 6th Plenary Session (perhaps a name list has already been drafted in the informal Beidaihe Meeting this past August).

In China, the shift in personnel at the highest party level is accompanied with mystery and uncertainty because of institutionalized opacity, including the “internal decisions” or “imperial appointments” made by the very top cadres.[1] In addition, what may happen next year is a major turnover of membership of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) because most members will reach the “age redline” of 68 years. Hence, a conjecture of who will be promoted to the new Politburo Standing Committee is intriguing and meaningful.

There are four essential steps to estimate who will become one of the “lucky few” that may be enthroned on the Politburo Standing Committee. First, normally speaking, standing committee members are selected from the Politburo (two significant outliers are Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, both of whom jumped from the Central Committee member position directly to PSC and skipped the “interim” Politburo member position), meaning our “speculation scope” is limited only to Politburo members. Second, the CCP is no stranger to a tacit understanding known as “seven-up, eight down” or in Chinese qishang baxia (七上八下) followed by the Hu Jintao administration, which dictates only leaders 67 or younger can ascend to or remain in top posts while those 68 or older must retire. Third, tracing back through historical records, women have never had the chance to sit on the standing committee (even Jiang Qing and Ye Qun were not granted such a blessing during the high tide of the Cultural Revolution), indicating female politburo members Liu Yandong and Sun Chunlan will automatically be ruled out. Fourth, since Liu Huaqing’s exit from the standing committee in 1997, the successive Central Military Commission Vice Chairmen have never gotten a ticket to the Standing Committee. As a result, Xu Qiliang and Fan Changlong’s fates are doomed. By and large, in line with the above-mentioned four rules, this essay predicts that among the remaining qualifiers, Wang Huning, Sun Zhengcai, Wang Yang, Hu Chunhua and Zhao Leji or Li Zhanshu will replace the outgoing Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli.[2] [3] The essay will next analyze each candidate individually.

Wang Huning (age 62 by year 2017. Currently the Director of the Central Policy Research Office): Wang Huning is a distinguished scholar-politician who was once the Dean of Fudan University Law School. As an experienced principal theorist who has stayed in the Central Policy Research Office for nearly two decades, Wang is believed to have helped build the Party’s official political ideologies for three administrations starting from the Jiang Zemin era. Wang’s possible promotion stems from the fact that Xi Jinping is pushing the state hard to reform as demonstrated by his establishment of the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms in 2013. Xi’s wish and the resulting behavior prompt people to recall Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, two pro-reform general secretaries in the 1980’s. In 1982, an unprecedented State Commission for Economic Restructuring was launched, proving Hu and Zhao’s vehement aspiration for reform. Afterwards, Bao Tong, a theorist with a loud voice in the chorus of political reformers, immediately gained Zhao’s trust and was given the position of his personal Policy Secretary. Three decades later, China again stands at a critical crossroad. This time, Xi appears bent on reinvigorating the dead central reform organization[4] and underpinning the nation’s structure. He needs someone to better and directly provide theoretical guidance from the standing committee. Therefore, it is very possible that the veteran instructor Wang Huning would be selected.

Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua (both of whom will be 54 by year 2017. Sun is currently the Party Secretary of Chongqing. Hu is currently the Party Secretary of Guangdong): The remarkable advantages enjoyed by Sun and Hu are age. The two are the youngest Politburo members, hinting strongly that they have more promotion opportunities than others. Such benefits may be even extended to the 20th Party Congress in 2022 (by then they will be only 59 years old and could again be considered as candidates for the standing committee). The CCP’s tradition of picking young and prospective cadres dates back to 1983. In that year, the CCP Central Committee decided to finalize a ministerial or provincial level reserve cadre name list, to which Hu Yaobang referred as “the third echelon name list.” 24 years later, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang became the primary beneficiaries owing to Hu’s third echelon mechanism. When Xi and Li were selected as standing committee members in the 1st Plenary Session of the 17th CCP Central Committee, Xi was 54 while Li was 52. In the light of this logic, Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua are very likely to ascend to the next level.

In addition, Sun and Hu’s political legacies as provincial party secretaries are highly noteworthy. After assuming his new office, Sun Zhengcai launched the “fly swatting plan” mainly targeting grass-root level corrupted cadres. His intra-province campaign put wind in the sails of Xi’s vigorous nation-wide anti-corruption efforts. On the economy side, the People’s Daily in July unprecedentedly set up a special column on its front page for Chongqing’s Liangjiang New District, introducing the experiences collected through the One Belt One Road and the Supply Side Structural Reform. Being reported by People’s Daily, especially on its front page in the form of a serial special column unequivocally signaled Sun’s achievements were recognized by the party center.

Hu Chunhua may have impressed Xi Jinping through his intransigent attitude toward the Wukan protest. The Siege of Wukan first broke out in 2011 during which thousands of local villagers asked for a more transparent farmland transaction procedure and demanded their own lands back. The fire of the protest was soon put out, but the arrest of protest leader Lin Zulian the past September again ignited Wukanese’ furor. As expected, the protest was suppressed, probably under orders given by Hu Chunhua. Stability maintenance is always the CCP’s top concern, and the official who can ease the tumult flawlessly and calmly will stand out. For instance, in 1989, the Party Secretary of Shanghai Jiang Zemin’s astute handling of the World Economic Herald incident was noticed by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Jiang then rocketed up to the position of CCP General Secretary very smoothly. Now, Hu Chunhua’s resolute attitude toward the Wukan protest could be a vital catalyst that would accelerate his promotion. After all, Xi Jinping himself is acknowledged for harshness and is consequently in favor of a subordinate who also plays a hard line.

Wang Yang (age 62 by year 2017. Currently Vice Premier of the State Council): Wang has always been a reformist, and thus is on the same page as Xi Jinping. According to a news report from People’s Daily, Wang, the then Mayor of Tongling, Anhui Province, had already won recognition from Deng Xiaoping in 1992 for his “Tongling Reform.” After he came to Guangdong as the new provincial party secretary, Wang proposed the “Liberation of Thoughts” campaign, revealing his will to reform the province. Accompanied with his bold declaration, Wang put forward the “Double Transfers” economic strategy (transferring both the lagging industries and the labors within them to Guangdong’s rural areas). Besides, his astounding claim “let the enterprises which must collapse collapse” echoes with the reformist rhetoric from China’s former Premier Zhu Rongji, who said “let the market eliminate backward enterprises.” Now that China has initiated a new expedition toward a deep and comprehensive reform, Xi needs a dependable and experienced reformist assistant in his “cabinet.” Wang Yang is undoubtedly an eligible candidate.

Another conspiratorial yet eye catching explanation goes like this: Wang’s governance of Guangdong Province is sometimes referred to as the “Guangdong Model,” which was a rival of then-Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai’s “Chongqing Model.” Before the 18th Party Congress, there was a hot debate of which model was better (Wang and Bo have never admitted the existence of the so called “model,” and the invention of the two terms “Guangdong Model” and “Chongqing Model” may simply be Chinese intellectuals’ fancy). Nonetheless, Wang and Bo were regarded as two evenly matched “rivals” (both of them were provincial level officials from 2007 to 2012) competing for a single standing committee seat in the 18thParty Congress. As Bo was ultimately dragged down by Xi in 2012, Wang naturally emerged as the victor.

Zhao Leji or Li Zhanshu (Zhao would be 60 by year 2017 and Li would be 67 by year 2017. Zhao is currently the Head of the Organization Department of CCP. Li is currently the Director of the General Office of the CCP Central Committee): Normally, one of the members of the Secretariat of the CCP Central Committee holds a post on the standing committee (for now it is Liu Yunshan),. Given that the Head of the Propaganda Department (the Head is at the same time a member of the Secretariat of CCP Central Committee) usually has a ten-year tenure, Liu Qibao, the current Head, is not likely to enter the standing committee in 2017. This means Zhao Leji and Li Zhanshu (they are both members of the Secretariat but their rankings are lower than Liu Yunshan and Liu Qibao’s) are two finalists.

It is hard to tell who will be favored by Xi because both Zhao and Li have rich governance experiences in Shaanxi Province, Xi’s hometown. According to many studies, factional ties with top leaders play a substantial role in elite ranking (Shih, Adolph, and Liu 2012). If this is the case, both of them have high promotion opportunities.

For Zhao Leji, one advantage may be that he is seven years younger than Li Zhanshu. As discussed earlier with regards to Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua, age is not a negligible factor. On the other hand, Xi appears to trust Li quite a lot. During the Beidaihe meeting this August, Li was exposed to the media more frequently than usual. He gave talks on personnel selection, party discipline and ideology under different occasions.

In conclusion, the essay predicts that Wang Huning, Sun Zhengcai, Wang Yang, Hu Chunhua and either Zhao Leji or Li Zhanshu will be enthroned in the 19th Party Congress. However, there are numerous other variables to consider which go beyond the scope of this essay. It is even possible that Xi could retain Wang Qishan on the standing committee for his excellent job in “hunting tigers” (taking down corrupt officials), despite Wang being at retirement age. Xi may also choose to personally increase the number of PSC members from seven to nine (Xi once stopped Hu Jintao’s nine-member-standing committee tradition. It is not impossible that he breaks the tradition again).

In a nutshell, it is extremely hard to identify a regularized mechanism that can explain the CCP’s operation, let alone predict the personnel change in the party central. The main reason is that CCP operates according to many informal decisions and opaque practices, the exact rules of which are hard to determine. But this is what makes Chinese politics and CCP governance fascinating, isn’t it?


Chutian Zhou studies international politics with a regional specialization on China at GPS. He is the Online Content Director of the Journal of International Policy Solutions and a contributor at China Focus Blog, where this post was originally published. Chutian also has an interdisciplinary background in journalism and finance prior to coming to GPS. He firmly believes the two-year-experience at GPS and JIPS will enhance his understanding on his home country, and well prepare him for a PhD in political science in the future.


[1] According to the CCP Organizational Work Dictionary, the Party uses single-candidate election rather than competitive election to select the Politburo and PSC members, which means their memberships are possibly internally decided by the top.

[2] The ranking order is based on the original sequence in PSC and Politburo except for Hu Chunhua, Zhao Leji and Li Zhanshu. I am not able to predict the rank of five incoming PSC members.

[3] Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli will be over 68 years old by year 2017 and are assumed to step down if the qishang baxia rule is applicable.

[4] The State Commission for Economic Restructuring gradually lost its power in the 1990s.


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