In the final days of speculation as to who will be elevated to China’s top echelon of power, the decisions have already been revealed – or so it appears.
A leaked list of who will be appointed to China’s top decision making body, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), shows inclusive selections, defying widespread expectations that appointments would further consolidate Xi’s power.
Wang Yang, a reformer well liked in overseas circles and a vice premier in China’s State Council, as well as Han Zheng, the party secretary of Shanghai, will both ascend to the PSC, according to the South China Morning Post, which cited several knowledgeable sources. The same sources said Wang will likely be named executive vice premier. The choices are representatives of China’s two main political factions, which observers sometimes refer to as the Youth League faction (Wang) and the Shanghai faction (Han).
The man at the center of overseas speculation, close Xi ally Wang Qishan, will be stepping down, according to another SCMP scoop, quieting the most talked-about theory that Xi may flout an informal retirement age to keep the anticorruption tzar on the PSC.
If true, the reports confirm that China’s leadership is committed to ruling by consensus, contrary to predictions that Xi might push to shrink the PSC to five people and further consolidate power with younger protégé appointments.
Wang Yang, defender of private enterprise and civil society
The elevation of Wang Yang would seem a natural choice, as he meets the criteria of seniority and experience. He was formerly the top party official of Guangdong, China’s most populous province, and Party Secretary of Chongqing municipality before that. But it comes a surprise to some from a political standpoint, due in part to Wang’s policies while administering Guangdong province. The Guangdong model of development was seen by many at the outset of Xi Jinping’s first term as a possible template for broader national reform, but has since increasingly contrasted with Xi’s policies.
Placing an emphasis on private enterprise and a greater role for civil society when at the helm of Guangzhou, Wang represented to many inside and outside of China one of two alternate paths for China’s reform. At the time of the 18th Party Congress in 2012, the then Chongqing Party Secretary, Bo Xilai, represented an opposing conservative “leftist” path. Bo’s rhetoric reflected a return to party propaganda, and while in power he consolidated political power through a popular anticorruption campaign, stripping industry moguls of their wealth in high-profile trials.
When Xi Jinping took office in 2012, some political pundits looked at the different brands of politics represented by Bo and Wang and wondered which direction Xi Jinping would take: an emphasis on harnessing the power of civil society and the private sector on the one hand, and a drive to consolidate power through populist rhetoric and strongman politics on the other.
Xi’s decision to purge Bo Xilai and Bo’s subsequent arrest and life imprisonment, along with Wang Yang’s elevation to the Politburo did not convincingly answer the question at the time. In fact, Bo’s populist policies and anticorruption campaign were quite popular and some speculated Xi may co-opt them to consolidate his own power.
A show of unity
After five years, a simplistic analysis might conclude that Xi has taken a page from Bo’s playbook, playing up the ideological primacy of the party and taking on corrupt vested interests while consolidating power. But Xi’s appointment of Wang Yang, as well as others from rival political factions, points to the need to look below the surface.
Cheng Li, a seasoned scholar of Chinese politics who accurately predicted Wang Qishan leaving the PSC in conversation with Asia Times’ Doug Tsuruoka last week, has pointed out that misconceptions regarding Chinese politics abound, including those regarding Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign and his efforts to reform China.
As was the case with Bo in Chongqing, Xi has tried to restore the legacy of China’s Communist Party through propaganda. But his anticorruption campaign is not merely about consolidating power – it is about reform. Li wrote in 2014:
Although the primary leaders of the campaign — namely Xi Jinping and Central Commission for Discipline Inspection Chief Wang Qishan — are both princelings in the faction led by former President Jiang Zemin, their factional association has not been a major driver of the campaign. In fact, the four largest corruption cases (namely Bo Xilai, Liu Zhijun, Xu Caihou and Zhou Yongkang) have all involved heavyweight leaders in the Jiang camp.
If Wang is indeed apointed to the PSC, the Chinese leadership will have signaled a continued move towards greater unity, a trend that gives Xi Jinping more room to enact reforms necessary to tackle the problems facing China’s economy. The past five years have shown us that Xi did not follow Wang’s Guangdong model towards greater freedom for civil society and flirtations with direct democracy at the local level. But with these selections to the standing committee, it also seems as though he is not yet pursuing the total move towards strongman politics that some expected.
With a renewed show of unity, what we can expect is an acceleration of China’s economic reforms.