18 March 2013
Dr Tim Summers

Dr Tim Summers

Senior Consulting Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme (based in Hong Kong)


China's leadership transition has demonstrated a strong degree of stability in elite politics. But innovation as well as cohesiveness will be needed to deal with the challenges facing China over the coming years. 

The National People’s Congress meetings which closed in Beijing on 17 March, saw the completion of a transition to a new leadership in China, with the Congress confirming Xi Jinping as President and Li Keqiang as Premier. Heads of the People's Congresses, the Vice President (Li Yuanchao), and other key state appointments were also made.

It is however the Communist Party that is paramount in Chinese politics. The more important announcements were made at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, when Xi became Party General Secretary and Li Keqiang was placed at number two on the new Standing Committee of the Politburo, the apex of party power. It is Xi's party position, rather than the presidency, which places him at the top of the political tree. 

Xi and Li's party and government appointments were no surprise. Back in 2007 both had been elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee, clearly marking them out for promotion to the top jobs five years later. However, one surprise of the transition was the timing of the announcement of Xi's third position, Chair of the Central Military Commission. Rather than wait two years to take this post as his predecessor, Hu Jintao, had done, Xi was able to take the role in November, alongside his party appointment. 

The nature of the transition has a number of implications for politics and policy in China.

Firstly, Xi taking all three top jobs in China at an early stage in his tenure means that his ability to make his mark politically should be greater than Hu's at a similar, early stage. So far, this impact has been felt more in governance style than policy shifts. As policy evolves, Xi will be able to make an impact here too.

Secondly, in spite of the dramas in Chinese politics last year around the demise of Bo Xilai, the leadership transition took place on time and in accordance with the processes set out by the party. 

Stability and hierarchy also underlined personnel appointments. The seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee were the most senior and experienced of those on the previous Politburo. A similar pattern has been repeated in other areas, for example keeping Zhou Xiaochuan as central bank governor beyond the formal retirement age for such posts. 

This implies significant continuity in policy. Both Xi and Li have been involved in party strategic decision making since 2007, and Li Keqiang (as Executive Vice Premier) was reportedly heavily involved in drafting the economic and social policy programme for 2011-15. The content of recent policy statements, including the work report - a 29-page consensus document approved by the leadership - given to the National People's Congress, bears out the assessment that there will be broad policy continuity. This likely includes the approach to political reform, and Xi Jinping has been careful to associate himself with Deng Xiaoping (for whom the party's continued hold on power was a fundamental principle). 

At the same time, public statements by both Xi and Li have suggested that new approaches are needed. Xi has emphasized his desire to fight corruption and govern modestly, while Li has talked about the need for reforms especially to reduce the role of government in the economy.

These statements by China's new leaders acknowledge the substantial nature of the challenges facing the country. The Communist party may want to retain the basics of the political system, but stasis is not an option. Social unrest and corruption continue to pose a threat to political stability. Social media has created new channels for discontent, and raised awareness of official malfeasance or local brutality. 

Perhaps most challenging is the environment. Pollution is worsening, damaging not just health and quality of life, but becoming a growing source of popular dissatisfaction with officialdom. In spite of environmental protection being made a key priority of the party last November, and some ambitious quantitative targets have been met over recent years, there has been no consistent improvement. Furthermore, the moderate government restructuring announced at the National People's Congress strengthen the parts of the bureaucracy dealing with environmental protection.

These challenges require innovative responses. At the top of the party this is acknowledged. There have been some examples of this being put into practice – the provincial authorities' approach to a standoff in Wukan, Guangdong province, in late 2011 is a notable example. 

In general, the Communist party has managed to adapt and respond sufficiently to stop social discontent getting out of hand, helped by continued growth in the economy. The leadership transition has demonstrated a strong degree of elite political stability. But policy innovation will be needed to deal with the challenges facing China over the coming years.