For a country widely seen as the world's other superpower, we know shockingly little about the worldviews, values, and socioeconomic policies of the seven men just named the new leaders of China. Unlike American politicians, Chinese leaders carry out their campaigns largely behind closed doors, and they are not chosen by the people.
But this year's once-a-decade power transfer was particularly opaque, clouded by the recent eruption of unprecedented political scandals. One was the dramatic March downfall of Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, an ambitious and charismatic political heavyweight, toppled amid a murder case involving his wife. Another was the sudden removal of Ling Jihua, President Hu Jintao's chief of staff, from the center of power on the eve of the 18th Party Congress. These astonishing events have heightened the risk of social instability in China and fueled uncertainty over the country's political trajectory. And the composition of the new Chinese leadership may even heighten that risk.
As China's new leaders are unveiled, we can begin to answer some important questions: Are there clear winners and losers? Can the identities of newly promoted leaders help us understand where China is headed?
Above all, the makeup of the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top ruling body, will do much to determine the direction and pace of the next phase of economic reform, as well as the arc of sociopolitical change in the country (See Table 1). In Beijing, perhaps even more than in Washington, personnel is policy. To understand politics in China therefore requires looking at all aspects of this historic leadership change, from its overall process to the means of selection to the resulting factional balance of power.
Troubling episodes prior to the Party Congress (especially the Bo Xilai scandal) notwithstanding, this most recent political succession was the second peaceful transition of power in China's history, following the first one in 2002, when Jiang Zemin handed power to Hu. It has generally complied with the rules and norms regarding age limits (all members of the previous Central Committee, the leadership body made up of most of the important national and provincial leaders in the country, who were born in or before 1944 have resigned). The turnover rates in all leadership organs selected at the congress are remarkably high: 64 percent of the Central Committee, 77 percent of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the country's top anti-corruption agency, 71 percent of the Politburo Standing Committee, and 64 percent of the Central Military Commission, the organization that manages China's army, are first-timers (see Chart 1).
As with previous party congresses, the Chinese leadership utilized a method of multi-candidate election for the Central Committee known as a "more candidates than seats election" (cha'e xuanju). At the election for full members of the Central Committee, over 2,200 delegates of the congress chose 205 full members from the 224 candidates on the ballot (9.3 percent were eliminated). Similarly, in the election for alternate members of the Central Committee, they elected 171 leaders from a candidate pool of 190 (11.1 percent were eliminated).
Those eliminated included prominent figures such as Minister of Commerce Chen Deming (who some in China thought had been a contender for the Politburo) and Ma Wen, who, as the head of the Ministry of Supervision, the body that monitors government officials, is one of the most influential female leaders in the country. Minister of Finance Xie Xuren, Minister of the National Development and Reform Commission Zhang Ping, central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan, and top military official Zhang Qingsheng were not elected to the new Central Committee, even though they are of eligible age.
Instead of following the practice of his predecessor Jiang, who retained the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission for two years following the last succession, Hu gave up his military position during this leadership transition. By surrendering power to Xi, Hu set a great example for a more institutionalized and complete political succession and strengthened the relationship among the party, the state, and the army.
Most of these institutional rules and norms, however, are not new. Many important institutional measures adopted at this year's Party Congress were first used either at the 13th Party Congress in 1987 or the 15th Party Congress in 1997. As early as 1987, the party had adopted the "more candidates than seats election" for the Central Committee. The scope and scale of open competition in terms of the percentages of candidates eliminated have not increased significantly over the past 25 years.