Age of China’s New Leaders May Have Been Key to Their Selection

Earlier this week, before the new Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) and Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party were announced, I argued that the Party faces the difficult problem of how to allocate power in the absence of an open and legitimate leadership selection process. I speculated that if the top politicos in the smoke-filled room (who probably include the present, past, and future General Secretaries of the CCP in consultation with other present and past PBSC members) couldn’t agree on the composition of the next collective leadership in the PBSC, they might throw it to the Central Committee, the selectorate with the formal authority to choose leaders, to actually make the choices in a multi-candidate election. That obviously didn’t happen, this time.

So without an election, how did the self-interested supremos manage to agree on how power at the top would be shared?

One piece of the answer may hinge on who didn’t make it to the very top. Neither Wang Yang (Guangdong CCP Secretary) nor Li Yuanchao (head of the CCP Organization Department, responsible for official appointments), two of the politicians most widely respected inside and outside of China for their efforts to improve governance, made the final cut. This could be a sign that the CCP leaders agree that even modest political reform is a dangerous slippery slope to the end of CCP rule.

Another broadly accepted theory is that former General Secretary Jiang Zemin outmaneuvered Hu Jintao to get his factional clients—Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli—into the majority of the PBSC seats. Although patronage is the coin of the realm in Chinese elite politics, the two-faction model probably over-simplifies the bargaining over the top slots and exaggerates the dominance of eighty-six-year-old Jiang.

But there is a third possibility that looks just as plausible: namely, reliance on a seniority principle. The new PBSC is more than one year older on average than the last one (63.4 vs 62.1 years). The new leaders who were promoted to the Standing Committee are all sixty-four years old or older. Of the seven members, all but General Secretary Xi Jinping and the presumptive premier Li Keqiang will need to retire in five years after one term. At that time, five (or more, depending on the size of the next PBSC) additional politicians now on the Politburo will get the chance to move up.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Party Secretary of Guangdong province Wang Yang gestures during a meeting of the 18th Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People on November 9, 2012 in Beijing, China.

Seniority, plus a norm of five-year instead of ten-year terms, allows power, patronage, and the other rewards of top office to be shared more widely so that no one loses too much. Xi Jinping can work to get his close associates into the PBSC in 2017.

Seniority also mitigates the problem of “disgruntled losers,” ambitious Politburo members who could make trouble because they feel they have been unfairly excluded from the inner circle. They could use the media to try to mobilize a public following, as Bo Xilai did when he was campaigning for a higher-ranking position. Or they might accuse another leader of corruption—almost all of them would be vulnerable.

In this transition, there were eight Politburo members competing for five PBSC slots, which means three disappointed and potentially disgruntled losers: Wang Yang (age fifty-seven), Li Yuanchao (age sixty-two), and Liu Yandong (female, age sixty-seven). Wang Yang and Liu Yuanchao likely will be consoled with a soft promise (not enforceable, of course) that they will move up next time. The only one who has reached the glass ceiling is Madame Liu, and they are probably counting on her, as one of the very rare women ever to rise to a senior political position, not to push back.

Seniority, a useful rule for managing the social strain of competition in organizations everywhere, has helped the CCP leadership solve the power-sharing problem this time around. But it has worsened its credibility problem by widening the gap between the Party’s rhetoric about intra-party democracy and the highly secretive and concentrated process its leaders actually used. Nor is seniority a good way to bring to the top the most capable leaders who now more than ever are needed to tackle China’s daunting economic, social, and political problems.