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Same-Day Analysis

China begins leadership transition with opening of Party Congress

Published: 08 November 2012

The opening of the Congress in Beijing signals the beginning of the process of officially handing over power from President Hu Jintao to Vice-President Xi Jinping.

IHS Global Insight perspective



The 18th National Party Congress (NPC) opened in Beijing this morning with a speech from the departing secretary-general, Hu Jintao, who appraised his work over the last five years and mapped out future challenges.


The composition of the next politburo standing committee remains unclear, with only Vice-President Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang considered likely candidates.


 A tussle is now taking place between the 'populist' and 'princeling' factions, the outcome of which will have major implications for future policy-making and regime stability.

China today (8 November) opened the 18th National Party Congress (NPC) in Beijing's Great Hall of the People with a speech from President Hu Jintao. In a 100-minute long keynote speech to more than 2,200 delegates representing 82.6 million Communist Party members, Hu acknowledged the severity of the income disparity problem but emphasised that, under his leadership, the country had benefited from overall economic growth and a general improvement in popular living standards. He said that China must pursue a "more balanced, co-ordinated and sustainable" path of development while aiming to double its 2010 GDP and per capita income by 2020. On the issue of corruption, he said: "If we fail to handle the issue well, it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state". Then, perhaps in reference to ousted former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, he cautioned: "Leading officials, especially high-ranking officials, must… exercise strict self discipline." Hu also spoke of the need for political reform, but offered no concrete details as to what this might entail, other than ruling out the implementation of Western democratic political systems. He delivered a strong call for environmental protection, calling for a reduction in the consumption of energy and announcing caps on energy and water usage. Finally, he said that Beijing must strengthen its military capabilities and safeguard its maritime interests, the latter hinting at recent tension in the South China and East China Seas.

The 18th NPC will close on 14 November. The newly selected Central Committee will then hold its first meeting the following day when it will announce the line-up of the new Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). Only Vice-President Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang are certain to have places. Xi will take over as party secretary-general from Hu at the end of the congress. For months now, there has been speculation about the composition of the newly compressed seven-member PBSC. In recent days, there has been intense media conjecture that those likely to miss out on the top spots are Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang and director of the Communist Party's organisation department, Li Yuanchao. Wang is a close ally of Hu and is known for his relatively liberal response to social unrest, particularly over demonstrations in Wukan village in December 2011. When Li was party secretary in Jiangsu, the urban-rural income ratio was transformed into one of the lowest in the country. He is also notable for his calls for accelerated democratic reform and his pioneering efforts towards the establishment of intra-party elections. Other leading contenders for PBSC membership include: vice-premier Wang Qishan, Chongqing party secretary Zhang Dejiang, Director of the Propaganda Department Liu Yunshan, Shanghai party secretary Yu Zhengsheng, Tianjin party secretary Zhang Gaoli, state councillor Liu Yandong, Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu, and party secretary of Inner Mongolia Hu Chunhua (see China: 18 November 2010: A Peaceful Transition? The Emergence of China's Fifth Generation Leadership).

The size of the new PBSC has yet to be officially announced although it appears highly likely that it will be downsized from nine to seven seats. Party insiders say that the proposal to scrap two of the seats emerged out of concerns that the body had become too unwieldy and indecisive since its expansion from seven to nine seats in 2002, when former President Jiang Zemin stepped down as communist party secretary general. The smaller number is ostensibly aimed at streamlining the decision-making process while enhancing the ability of future leader Xi to forge consensus among the group in order to push through vital reforms pertaining to economic restructuring. It has also been interpreted by some as a step towards reining in the power of the police amid concerns that then minister of public security Zhou Yongkang had accumulated an excessive amount of power as a member of the PBSC.

Outlook and implications

In terms of legacy, the congress is likely to see the further consolidation of Hu's thoughts on "scientific development" and "harmonious society" enshrined into the constitution. The high priority accorded to corruption in Hu's speech is unsurprising given recent revelations pertaining to Bo's conduct in office. Although the former Chongqing party secretary has yet to undergo trial, his dismissal had already exposed major fissures at the apex of China's political system, as well as widespread nepotism and corruption among its most senior leaders. Allegations in the New York Times paper last month that relatives of China's Premier Wen Jiabao own extensive business interests, coming after a Bloomberg newswire report in June that Xi's family has accumulated huge amounts of wealth, have meant that the run-up to this week's event has been far from the carefully choreographed transition that China's leaders had been hoping for. Both the English language versions of the New York Times and Bloomberg remain blocked in the country. Further, the increased security presence in Beijing underscores the extent of government sensitivity to possible expressions of dissent, particularly given that small-scale protests have continued to proliferate across the country. It is worth noting that just as the meeting got underway, reports emerged that five Tibetan monks had self-immolated in Aba county in Sichuan province.

A slew of other appointments will also be made over the coming week, including provincial party chiefs and head of certain state-owned enterprises. The fact that even now it is not possible to say who will comprise the next generation of leadership underscores the continuing opacity of the selection process. Still, it is not yet known whether Hu will continue in his position as head of the central military commission which would allow him to retain significant political influence in the near-term. But to characterise Beijing in monolithic terms would be inaccurate. Behind closed doors, a heated battle has been and will be taking place between the 'populist' and 'princeling' factions, the outcome of which will have major implications for future policy-making and regime stability. In a sign of the continuing influence of former president Jiang Zemin over the power handover, it was significant that Hu entered the Great Hall with Jiang beside him. Jiang is key member of the princeling faction and recent rumours have indicated that the latter group has gained the upper hand against the 'populists'.

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