The New Leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the Prospects for Political Reform

Perspectives Internationales 30/10/2012 0

 China is one of the few Communist party ruled states that has survived the end of the Cold War intact, and arguably the one that has fared by the best ever since. The last three decades, at the same time, have been a period when CCP has consolidated its rule and defied all the doom-sayers who predicted its demise or fall from power. The CCP has grown larger and stronger than ever; and at the same time, it has undergone multi-faceted internal transformation reflecting the growing complexities of the Chinese society.

On November 8, the CCP will hold its 18th National Party Congress (NPC). The NPC will formally bring the era of Hu Jintao to a close; save some unexpected circumstances, it will officially welcome the new collective leadership of the CCP (a 25-member Politburo with a Standing Committee of currently seven individuals), led by Xi Jinping. It will also serve for revisiting the main policy goals of the CCP and amending the Party Constitution. These proceedings, even though scripted, largely ceremonial and far from uncertain, still resemble an important hallmark in Chinese politics, and given the magnitude and importance of China for global affairs, they are relevant to the rest of the world as well.

In the literature on Chinese politics, one notion mentioned elsewhere is that the CCP is an organization characterized by its flexibility and adaptability towards the changes in the Chinese society. In the light of this, the article discusses the current outlook of the CCP; the profile of the new collective leadership; and the challenges ahead when it comes to undertaking the “unfinished task” of the incumbent leadership – advancing political reform.

Changing outlook of the Party

The CCP, despite not being the only registered political party in China (there are eight minor political parties, who together with the CCP form the “United Front”), is the sole organization de facto governing the most populated polity in the world. CCP is probably the single most numerous national organization in the world too – it has more members than the population of any single European country (it surpassed the figure of 80 million in 2011 – see Xinhua News, 2011). It is well structured and positioned at all levels within the Chinese society. The CCP remains above any other institution in China; its members are responsible to the internal Discipline Committee first and then to the courts; the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) remains the military extension of the CCP.

The CCP of today, nonetheless, is no longer a Party of the proletariat and the farmers, nor a revolutionary party in the traditional sense of the word; it has adopted a very managerial, entrepreneurial role instead. Tang (forthcoming) argues that more than ever before CCP’s outlook and its members’ attitudes resemble the ones of pluralized societies. Jiang Zemin’s idea of the three represents – namely, that the CCP represents “the developmental needs of China’s advanced production capacity (entrepreneurs), the progressive direction of China’s advanced culture (intellectuals), and the fundamental interests of the broad majority” is seen in practice as well.

The business-elite nowadays is in various ways co-opted and engaged by the Party. Red capitalists have a growing stake in preserving the regime, and are “among the Party’s most important bases of support” (Dickson, 2007) – which is contrary to the expectation that the business sector would push for pro-democratic eventual regime change. The merging of economic and financial power also goes along more informal lines of traditional networking (e.g. inter-marrying of children of two big political/business households), which McNally (2011) refers to as “guanxi capitalism” – it is however a non-flattering term, which sees the fusion between politics and business as one of the main kettles of corruption or at least unfair distribution of wealth. In the last few months, two findings have shaken the Chinese leadership – first Bloomberg revealed Xi Jinping’s family’s business empire; more recently, the New York Times discussed Wen Jiabao’s family wealth.

CCP’s members are well educated and belong to the middle class; or at least university students with bright careers ahead. Education is the single most important indicator of prospective Party membership, and of advancing through the Party ranks (Walder, 2009). University professors and intellectuals even if not members of the Party are given enough voice and are included in what is intended to be a consultative policy-making process. Under Hu Jintao, the Politburo (PB) has started regularly holding collective study sessions that feature leading Chinese scholars (Lu, 2007).

This new outlook of the Party – which now unites the political, business and the intellectual elite in China, is putting forward a post-revolutionary, post-ideological model of leadership. It combines aspects of having popular consent and basis in all spheres of the society, paternalistic-eudemonic legitimacy (only the Party knows what is the best for the benefit of the Chinese people, and works towards it), which is rooted in the projection of an image of virtue, or “gentlemanship.” A lot of the current literature discusses these developments as a (re)emergence of a Confucianist, meritocratic model (led by Tsinghua’s Daniel Bell); however, while this paper does not aim to join that debate, certainly agrees that they deserve the due attention – especially in the light of the 18th NPC and the change of the guard.

The leadership transition and the new leaders

The current model of leadership of the CCP is collective – embodied in the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), a top political board comprised of a handful of senior leaders (currently counting seven). The PBSC is entrusted with the most important political decisions; and the decision-making process is consensual. The PBSC members are in charge of specific policy areas according to their expertise, and serve as heads of the so-called “Leading Small Groups” – informal, but key policy-making bodies that bring together seniors from the Party, the government, the Army, and the research/academic community. The Secretary General of the Party (currently Hu Jintao) serves as a first-among-equals, and chairs the meetings of the PB. Another important change is the limitation of the mandates of senior leaders to five years, and the convention that they can serve only two consecutive mandates after which they have to retire. In the meantime, “heirs” are identified and groomed for taking over after the incumbents’ term is completed; they are usually assigned various senior posts prior to the succession, serving one “apprentice” term (Wang and Vangeli, 2012). The filtering of cadres at the top level is growingly institutionalized. Education, performance track record, and other criteria are taken in consideration when dealing with the “human resources” – however, family and personal ties, as well as factional allegiances are not to be underestimated.

The idea for regulated and institutionalized succession was originally conceptualized in the 1980s, in order to prevent the rise of figures with “sultanistic” tendencies that could usurp the Party structures. It was implemented only from the mid-1990s onwards, as the Tiananmen events 1989 had greatly shaken the Party, calling for consolidation first. A full-fledged leadership succession was for the first time carried at the 16th NPC in 2002 with the transfer of power from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao. By now, these rules are institutionalized and backed up by legislation. In the coming months, Xi Jinping will take over the roles of Secretary General of the Party, President of the People’s Republic and lastly, Chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission and Chairman of the PRC Central Military Commission. Along with the change of the top figure, there will be a large-scale change of the membership of the Central Committee of the CCP (roughly 200 individuals), and the Politburo. The meaning of “large-scale” is not to be underestimated – as Li (2012) points out, the members replacement ratio in CCP Central Committee in NPC years is significantly higher than the one of the American Congress.

The incoming PBSC in 2012 is dubbed the “fifth generation” of Chinese leaders (the first one being the one of Mao Zedong). They were born in the 1940s or 1950s, grew up in the People’s Republic of China, had a firsthand account of the Cultural Revolution during their youth; and maturing in the era of Reform and Opening Up. Their political careers started unveiling during the 1980s and the 1990s, and often included a post in some of the coastal provinces or around the Bohai rim; that is to say their job was to design, implement or supervise the reform process during the peak of the reform period. Aside from being experienced practitioners, many of them are intellectuals (there is a record number of PhD holders among the new CCP elite – including both Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang) who are also much more international compared to their predecessors (with Li Yuanchao, the current head of the Party’s Organization Committee for instance, was a fellow at the Kennedy’s School of Government at Harvard). Many of them have background in the social sciences, as opposed to the incumbent generation of engineers headed by Hu Jintao. Several of the incoming leaders have revolutionary family origin and are dubbed “princelings” – including Xi Jinping himself. Nominally, the new PBSC might seat more leaders that are closer to Jiang’s faction than to the Communist Youth League faction (or Hu’s faction); however, most of the politicians enjoy good relations on both sides. Very likely, the new PBSC for the first time in history will have a female member, in Liu Yandong.

The urgent need for political reform

One name that will be definitely omitted from the list of members of the new collective leadership is Bo Xilai, the former municipal Party chief of Chongqing and arguably the most controversial figure in contemporary China’s politics. In the aftermath of a scandal involving a defection of his close collaborator Wang Lijun to the American consulate in Chengdu earlier this year, and an exposure of countless cases of various misuses of power, Bo Xilai was stripped of all political titles and is now pending legal process. His wife Bogu Kalai had been sentenced to a suspended death sentence for the murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood.

 During the National People’s Congress earlier this year, Premier Wen Jiabao used the case of Bo Xilai as a pretext to warn of a potential relapse into a “new Cultural Revolution,” should the Party not proceed with further political reforms. This has come as a follow up to a series of statements made by Wen on the topic of political reform and democracy, something that he (as well as the many pro-reform oriented leaders) considers an unfinished task and an urgent priority for the CCP.[1]

Political reform has a very righteous purpose in the Party’s discourse, and is an important source of legitimacy. It is an umbrella term that addresses the Party-society relations, and goes along several lines.

The need for political reform is usually discussed in the light of ongoing problems, or as Chinese leaders dub them, “plagues” of the Party and the society. Corruption, in this sense, is the most burning problem. The understanding of corruption in the China context is extensive – it includes any instance of abuse of power, which in China can take vivid proportions (Bo Xilai’s case being only one example of this). Corruption is especially a problem with local governments in peripheral areas that are hard to supervise, and often results with outbursts of revolt – such as in Wukan, Guandong earlier this year, and literally elsewhere. Additionally, in the age of new media, much of the illicit behavior and luxurious lifestyle of officials and their relatives gets documented online, which adds to the urgency of the problem. In this sense, political reform would mean introducing some sort of checks and balances for the Party, and eventually empowering an independent judicial system.

Political reform is also conceptualized as a means to stabilize and facilitate the policy-making process, currently driven by a myriad of stake-holders, agencies, and diverging agendas.  The divergence, lack of coordination, and transmission of responsibilities, is not only seen between politicians and factions, but it is increasingly the case across different sectors and at different levels in Chinese policy-making. Very often, the virtue of having better position in the Party could be a deciding factor on what kind of policy will be pursued.

The most burning example of cracking decision-making process is the South China Sea, where about a dozen governmental bodies (as well as companies) contribute to “stirring the sea” (International Crisis Group, 2012). In the case of the South China Sea, the structural deficiencies of the maritime policy process translate into a serious security concern of regional, if not global relevance. Political reform in this sense would be a counter-balance to an overly entrepreneurial policy making attitude. In other words, it means further professionalization of the governance, clear demarcation of roles and responsibilities, and eventually further delineating the Party from the government.

On top of all this, political reform would also imply further liberalization of the media and the public debate (eventually lowering the intensity of censorship and liberalizing the “inciting subversion” regulation) and further opening up of the civil society (departing from the current model of government-led NGOs). These reforms would of course have to be accompanied with reforms in other sectors – especially in terms of social welfare, and in the rural areas. Last, but not least, political reform would signify an acceleration of intra-Party democracy and an introduction of popular elections beyond the lowest local level.

Finally, political reform cannot be discussed independently of the developments in the economic field and the prospects of economic reform. In fact, much of the basis for the paternalistic-eudemonic leadership of the CCP has been the sharp economic growth in the past three decades, accompanied with a rise in the living standards of the vast majority of the Chinese population. While political reform has the potential to strengthen the legitimacy of the Party, this can only be a case if the utilitarian deed is fulfilled. However, economic matters are out of scope in this paper.


Dickson, Bruce (2007). Integrating Wealth and Power in China: The Communist Party’s Embrace of the Private Sector. The China Quarterly 192:827-854.

International Crisis Group (2012). Stirring up the South China Sea – Asia Report no. 223. (Beijing/Brussels: ICG).

Li, Cheng (2012). “Leadership transition in the CPC: promising progress and potential problems.” China: An International Journal,Vol. 10 No. 2. pp. 23 – 33.

Lu, Yiyi (2007). The collective study sessions of the Politburo: a multipurpose tool of China’s central leadership. Brief no. 27 (Nottingham: University of Nottingham, China Policy Institute).

McNally, Christopher A. (2011). China’s Changing Guanxi Capitalism: Private Entrepreneurs between Leninist Control and Relentless Accumulation. Business and Politics: Vol. 13: Iss. 2, Article 5.

Miller, Alice (2012). Road to the 18th Party Congress. China Leadership Monitor, 36. Brookings.

Tang, Wenfang (forthcoming). “Inside the Party” in Civic Culture and Authoritarian Regime. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vangeli, Anastas (2012). “Political reform an urgent task for the incoming leadership.” University of Nottingham China Policy Institute Blog. <>.

Walder, Andrew G. (2006, 2009). The party elite and China’s trajectory of change, in Kjeld E. Brodsgaard & Yongnian Zheng (Eds.), The Chinese Communist Party in Reform (pp. 1-14). London: Routledge.

Wang Zhengxu and Anastas Vangeli. China’s leadership succession: new faces and new rules of the game. China Insight Series. (Paris: European Union Institute for Security Studies). <>

Xinhua News (2011). China’s Communist Party members exceed 80 million.

            Anastas Vangeli

 Anastas Vangeli (MA) is a researcher on Chinese politics, Sino-European affairs, and nationalism. He is currently a graduate student at the Renmin University of China in Beijing.

[1]    The shifts on the global political level have contributed to increased urgency of the topic of political reforms. The Jasmine Revolutions that led to fall of regimes in Northern Africa and the Middle East (the most important cases for China being the traditional allies Libya and Syria), as well as the pro-democracy changes in Myanmar, are bad news for the CCP. China’s authoritarian friends abroad were used as an example to further legitimize the concept of a non-democratic leadership; now, with the fall of these regimes, there are ever-fewer examples to be pointed out as close to China. Moreover, in the age of new media and globalized communication, there are growing fears that popular unrest abroad might be exported to China. We must also not dismiss the pertinent support by the United States and the European Union for pro-democracy and pro-human rights activists in China, considered a threat by the regime. China so far has responded to the changes in the global landscape primarily by boosting its domestic security apparatus (the spending on internal security has surpassed the spending on military); nevertheless it has yet to address the roots of the problems that might lead to a popular unrest of similar sort. On political reform, see Vangeli (2012).

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