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What Did the CCP’s 18th National Congress Tell the World?

On November 14, 2012, the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chose seven Politburo Standing Committee members. They are Xi Jinping (习近平), Li Keqiang (李克强), Zhang Dejiang (张德江), Yu Zhengsheng (俞正声), Liu Yunshan (刘云山), Wang Qishan (王岐山), and Zhang Gaoli (张高丽). What does this selection tell people about the future direction of the Communist regime?

• Hu Jintao’s influence will be dramatically reduced. Hu gave both the Party General Secretary position and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission position to Xi Jinping. Also, the hot candidates from the Youth League Faction such as Li Yuanchao (李源潮) and Wang Yang (汪洋) didn’t obtain a Politburo Standing Committee seat. This indicates that Hu’s influence over CCP policies in the future will be limited.

• Besides Xi Jinping (59 years old) and Li Keqiang (57), all other members are in their mid-60’s: Zhang Dejiang (66), Yu Zhengsheng (67), Liu Yunshan (65), Wang Qishan (64), and Zhang Gaoli (66). According to the CCP’s undocumented rule of “seven remains and eight retires” (a person whose age is under 67 can be a Politburo member and one whose age is over 68 will retire), those five members will all retire at the 19th National Congress of the CCP, in five years. They are unlikely to take on major policy initiatives since they will only serve for one term.

• Five Politburo Standing Committee members are Princelings: Xi Jinping, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, and Wang Qishan. All the previous CCP leaders from the 13th National Congress to the 17th National Congress showed up at this meeting. It is a showcase of “unity” to the outside world, but it is also an indication that the old guards and their children maintain a strong influence over the party.

• Wang Yang has been the main spokesperson for political reform. The Wukan Model, where the government peacefully resolved public protest by working with the dissidents, was named after the incident in Wukan village in Guangdong Province, where Wang is the head of the Communist Party. Wang’s being out indicates that the Party is not interested in political reform.

• With five senior members in the Political Standing Committee, Xi Jinping is likely to seek consensus from others instead of performing as a “strongman,” so the next five years won’t be “Xi’s era.” It is more likely to be an era of group-leadership.

• With Xi Jinping taking over the Central Military Commission, he needs time to develop a relationship with the army (though he has held the title of Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission for the past two years). The CCP may not take extreme military action against its neighbors in the near future, but there also exists the opposite possibility: Xi may want a military victory to establish his position over the military.

• Most importantly, some China analysts used to be focused on the top leader(s) – what Jiang Zemin would do, what Hu-Wen would do, and what Xi Jinping will do. This election and the appearance of all senior leaders reminded the world that what really determines the direction of the CCP is not a single leader, but a collective of all groups with vested interests. As the beneficiaries of the current system, they are also the defenders of the current system and are thus unlikely to take dramatic action that might potentially jeopardize their positions or their benefits. So serious political reform, which might lead to losing the Party’s ruling status, is unlikely to happen. Also, fixing corruption, which will hurt those who currently benefit from it, is unlikely to happen.

• A sidebar: With Hu-Wen completely out, Wen Jiabao is unlikely to get the Party’s support to repair the damage that the New York Times’ report on his family’s corruption did to his image. Also Bo Xilai may not receive severe punishment.