China’s 18th Party Congress

IITM CSC Article #40
26 October 2012


China’s 18th Party Congress

Leadership transition is a particularly sensitive phase for all governments and, especially for dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. The spectre of the ‘jasmine revolutions’ that toppled some long-entrenched regimes, provides cold comfort to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The situation is accentuated by the magnitude of changes imminent at the 18th Party Congress, a particularly important event, scheduled to convene in Beijing on November 8, 2012.

2,270 Chinese Communist Party (CCP) delegates, representing the now 82 million-strong CCP, will ‘elect’ an unusually large number of cadres to the top Party positions. Among them will be 251 delegates, hand-picked for their blemish-free political record and reliability, representing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The changes will be extensive with 7 of the 9 Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) members retiring, 14 of the 25 Politburo (PB) members stepping down and 60 per cent of the CCP Central Committee (CC) being replaced.  

China’s military establishment will see similar high-level changes. Its apex body, the Central Military Commission (CMC), will be witness to all but 2 of its 9-members retiring. Also stepping down will be the heads of all 4 principal departments of the PLA namely, the Directors of the General Staff Department (GSD), General Political Department (GPD), General Logistics Department (GLD) and the General Armaments Department (GAD). The Commanders of the PLA Air Force, PLA Navy and PLA Second Artillery will also be replaced. In fact, the appointment of 63-year old Ma Xiaotian, a high profile ‘princeling’, as PLAAF Commander has just been announced. He will now automatically be a member of the CMC. His appointment also ensures that the PLAAF will, for the first time, have two representatives in the highest military body since Xu Qiliang, the incumbent PLAAF Commander, will be promoted as CMC Vice Chairman.

The educational qualifications of the incoming leaders will be different from that of their predecessors. In contrast to the latter who were mainly engineers, the new appointees have virtually all been educated in China and have higher degrees in Law, Political Science, Business Administration and Management, Economics and Marxist Philosophy. Many of them have attended study courses abroad and the children of a majority of them have studied abroad. Significantly, for the first time a number of the new leaders will be children of high ranking ‘revolutionary’ cadres, or ‘princelings’. Their presence, attitudes and mindset will impact on domestic national policies and China’s foreign and security policies.

The change-over comes about at a crucial time for China. There is widespread simmering discontent as reflected in the estimated 200,000 protests in 2011--up from 180,000 in 2010—as China enters the critical third stage in its economic reforms. Widening income disparities, food adulteration, pollution, growing incidence of corruption etc are central issues contributing to rising dissatisfaction. The fact that China’s domestic security budget has been increased for two successive years and remains higher than the national defence budget reflects the leadership’s concern. 

A recent Pew Survey of over 3,177 respondents conducted between March 18 and April 15, 2012, confirmed the causes of discontent. There is general consensus that the economic gains have not benefited everyone equally. 81 per cent agree with the statement the “rich just get richer while the poor get poorer,” while 45 per cent “completely” agree. Almost 48 per cent--up from 41 per cent four years ago--say the gap between rich and poor is a very serious problem. Corruption is a serious concern with almost fifty percent of those surveyed viewing corrupt officials as a very big problem. This is 11 percentage points more than in 2008. There is an identical percentage increase in those viewing business people as corrupt with 32 per cent identifying that as a serious concern. Consumer protection is another rising concern. While four years ago only 12 per cent cited food safety as a major issue, in this survey their number had jumped to 41 per cent. Adulterated medicines is another concern. 36 per cent consider air and water pollution as serious matters. Interestingly, many Chinese worry about the current state and direction of their culture and traditions. 71 per cent want to see their way of life protected from foreign influence and 59 per cent, or 12 per cent less than in 2008, say they like the pace of modern life. Naturally 73 per cent of the wealthier Chinese like modern life.

An important factor that has led to the CCP’s image, stature and inner-Party discipline being severely damaged in recent months has been the absence of at least one pre-eminent veteran leader guiding political events from the wings. This has seen senior cadres jostling for positions and facilitated the ambitions and unchecked rise of a senior leader with impeccable ‘Red Revolutionary’ credentials.  Bo Xilai, a ‘princeling’ and son of one of the so-called ‘Eight Immortals’, Bo Yibo, attempted a brash new style of politicking and sought to build a popular support base to facilitate his entry into the PBSC. In the process he came to be seen as a potential alternate power centre which had to be politically neutralized. The fall out of Bio Xilai’s dismissal from his post as well as the CCP continue to reverberate inside the Party and the neo-Maoist sentiments, that Bo Xilai had mobilised in order to broaden popular support, continue to make their presence felt. 

While there is yet no clarity on whether the size of the PBSC will be reduced from 9 to 7, it is definite that Xi Jinping, also a ‘princeling’, will be elevated as Party General Secretary and China’s President. Li Keqiang, who has grown in the Party through the Communist Youth League (CYL) and is an economist, will take over from Wen Jiabao as Premier. There is a strong likelihood that Hu Jintao may continue as Chairman of the Central Military Commission for at least another year.

Regardless of whether the PBSC is downsized, all its incumbents will be individuals who joined the CCP during the Cultural Revolution. Most will have witnessed their close relatives and parents suffer during those ten tumultuous years and many would have personally suffered deprivation. They will have a tough mind set which has been moulded by adversity. The ‘princelings’ among them will additionally have a strong sense of entitlement or privilege. This ‘Cultural Revolution Generation’ of leaders can be expected to strive to make China a great power which has regained its self-perceived position in the world.  This will impact on China’s domestic and foreign policies.



Jayadeva Ranade,
Former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and Distinguished Fellow with the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi
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