By Xiaobo Hu
China held the 19th Congress of the ruling communist party this past October. There have been discussions and speculations regarding the Party’s top-level power reconfiguration and future for China’s continual economic reforms. These two issues are closely related in China, as they are in many other countries.
In the Party’s new Politburo and its standing committee, China watchers in the United States and around the world find strong indications of concentration of power in the top leadership. For many China watchers, this can also be seen as reinforced through the Party secretary general Xi Jinping’s speech during the 19th Congress, as well as in the new amendments to the Party constitution.
In addition, the new seven-member standing committee of the Politburo presents “no apparent heir” to the current secretary general, as used to be the case after Mao. This is viewed not only as concentration of power but also as a possibility that Xi would hold onto power after he completes his second term of secretary general in five years.
Indeed, there is no clear contender to Xi’s current authority, yet there is low possibility to see a young leader rising to take over Xi’s position at the next Party Congress in five years.
However, given the rules followed by administrations in the past 15 years, out of the current seven members of the standing committee, there are four who would be able to serve another term. Although none of these four would be able to serve a second term of their new positions from the next Party Congress on due to their age limit under the same rules, there could be another 10 years from today for China to “groom” a new leader.
More importantly, the most senior of the four standing committee members who could continue to serve after Xi’s tenure are current Premier Li Keqiang and former Guangdong Governor Wang Yang, both long-standing economic reformers. That will secure China from much uncertainty in regard to change of top leadership and the Chinese politics could stay stable for another decade, which is essential for its continual economic reform and economic development.
This might be the most significant outcome of the 19th Congress for anyone concerned with China’s continual economic development. Li has pushed for more economic reforms and openness, including financial liberalization and bilateral investment treaty (BIT) with the United States, and for close to a decade, Wang has led regional and local reforms in the most liberal province in China.
Although there are various concerns about the Party tightening up its control over Party officials, most disciplinary measures adopted by the Party aim at corruptions and official-business collusions, which the Party hopes would further promote greater productivity and innovation. It seems the anti-corruption campaign will continue to become more institutionalized, through which the Party hopes to consolidate its basis for political legitimacy.
Concentration of power at the top leadership may not necessarily turn the country into recentralization of power away from localities, especially in areas of economic and market decisions. Particularly with both Li and Wang, who have served as governors in multiple provinces, continuing to steer the country on the same course for further economic reform, recentralization has never been on their agenda. Concentration of power is not economic recentralization, nor is it protectionism to stop China from engaging trade and economic development with other countries. While everyone is concerned with growing local debts and devastating environmental problems in China, it is important to see how concentration of power in the top leadership will tackle these and other economic and social problems under a more decentralized structure in China.