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No Surprises, or Reformers, in China’s New Leadership Team

Months of speculation over who would be the next leaders of the People’s Republic of China ended this morning when the seven members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee were revealed at a news conference. Leading the most powerful group in China onto the stage was new Party General Secretary and Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xi Jinping.

Xi, who was widely expected to emerge from the recently completed 18th Party Congress as China’s preeminent leader, will take over as President for Hu Jintao in March. Following closely behind Xi was Li Keqiang, who takes over for Wen Jiabao as Premier. Other Committee members include Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli. All but Xi and Li are new to the Standing Committee. All but Xi and Li are also over 64 years of age and, thus, in accordance with Party rules, will only be able to serve one five-year term at the paramount of Chinese power.

Despite a political process fraught by scandal, most prominently in the form of Bo Xilai’s dismissal from the Party, China’s leadership transition ended on an unsurprising note. There were no shock inclusions or omissions on the Standing Committee and its reduction from nine members to seven members, reportedly to ease consensus building and decision-making, had been widely predicted in recent months.

Known reformers, such as Wang Yang, joined women and ethnic minorities amongst those groups that are unrepresented on the Committee. Of the three current and former heads of Chongqing, Seattle’s sister city, that began the year vying for Committee positions, only one – Zhang Dejiang – ultimately received a spot. Despite his elevation to the height of Chinese power, Zhang will maintain his role as the leader of Chongqing, bringing increased prestige and, potentially, an enhanced ability to marshal resources to the position.

Now that China’s new leadership team has been introduced the world, the focus of journalists, scholars, and analysts of Chinese politics will turn to the reforms they are likely to implement. Several publications and news agencies, including the Financial Times and Reuters, have already applied the label “conservative” to the new standing committee. Scholars such as Elizabeth Economy and Russell Moses have followed suit by noting the Committee’s lack of bona fide reformers – generally speaking, Xi, Li and Wang Qishan are seen as “cautious reformers”, with the rest of the Committee members having reputations of conservatism. That being said, the Chinese Communist Party maintains a system where progression through the ranks depends largely on an individual not taking strong policy stances, making it difficult to ascertain the intentions of the top leaders until they assume their positions of power. Reforms, then, could be forthcoming, though the constitution of this Standing Committee seems to indicate that any such changes will be moderate rather than radical.

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For the Pacific Northwest, the way in which China’s new leaders handle certain aspects of the country’s continued development will prove much more important than their respective biographies. Among the issues they must address that will have significant implications for area residents and businesses are environmental degradation, intellectual property protection and enforcement, the government construction of a social safety net, and the encouragement of higher levels of spending by Chinese citizens.

Advocates for the political and economic reform of China will undoubtedly emerge from the 18th Party Congress disappointed. But there is something we can all take satisfaction in – the fact that the leaders of a country whose future is so integrally tied to our own seem to have successfully navigated the perils of a non-democratic and non-transparent once-in-a-decade leadership transition.

Published November 15th, 2012

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