Leadership Change in China and Implications for India

Originally published: 7 November 2007

The 17th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China that took place in October was notable for the beginning of the transition to the so-called fifth generation of China’s leaders. It is important to analyze these leadership changes both for what they reveal about the Chinese domestic political system and for their possible impact on China’s external relations.


First, continuing in the manner by which Hu acceded to power, there is no particular leader of the fifth generation chosen as the “core.” Like Hu, the new leader will likely only be primus inter pares. However, unlike in the case of Hu, who first entered the CPC Politbureau’s Standing Committee (PBSC) as the only member of the fourth generation of leaders, this PBSC has two members of the fifth generation Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping. There has been talk that given Xi stands senior to Li in the PBSC, the former is the likely successor to Hu. It has however, to be noted that it was Li who was the first to become a full member of the CPC’s Central Committee in 1992, with Xi following only in 1997. The choice of who the next General Secretary is therefore not as clear-cut as it was in the case of Hu.


Leaving aside the question of seniority, it appears that given their respective backgrounds Li and Xi seem to fit neatly into the possibility of succeeding Hu and Wen Jiabao respectively. Li has served in senior positions in the agriculturally important province of Henan and in China’s most industrially significant province of Liaoning while Xi has only served in the wealthy coastal provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai. The major reason for Li’s ascent has been his Communist Youth League (CYL) connection with Hu but Xi, in addition to earning his spurs as an economic reformer is also a taizi – one of the princelings, as children of Party elders are known – and also considered to be more popular and successful than Li.


While this uncertainty, would in another era, be considered destabilizing, the CPC by choosing two members of the fifth generation of leaders, who could be potential successors to Hu Jintao, has left open the possibility of each candidate try to win political legitimacy for himself before 2012 when the next Congress takes place. This method also gels with the CPC’s claims of seeking increased “inner-Party democracy” and “consultative democracy.”


Second, for the first time, all members in the PBSC, except Wen Jiabao, have experience as Party Secretaries in the provinces. This indicates the increasing weight of the provinces at Beijing and of the importance of a career in the provinces for promotions to the highest leadership positions in China. The dynamics of centre-province relations – China is a far more federal entity than is commonly acknowledged – and their impact on China’s internal politics and increasingly, its external policies, are issues that are still little understood by outside observers. It will therefore be increasingly necessary for countries, and especially China’s neighbours, to tailor their foreign policies towards China, not just in terms of dealing with a centre at Beijing but also to reorient themselves to acknowledge China’s various provincial power centres.


Third, the two other new faces inducted into the PBSC, besides Li and Xi, namely He Guoqiang and Zhou Yongkang have spent significant lengths of time in departments and ministries related to China’s petroleum industry, especially Zhou, who is a former head of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). This point perhaps to the new and growing power of China’s top state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and in particular, the national oil companies (NOCs). This is another indication, if it were needed, that China will continue to emphasize public ownership of key sectors of the economy and that energy security will continue to be a top concern with the Chinese leadership in the coming years.


For India, the manner of leadership change and the background of the new leaders in its largest neighbour should be matters of close study. On the foreign policy front, there are two aspects India should pay attention to. One, India’s China policy should take note of the rising power of China’s provinces and pay renewed attention to sub-regional projects such as the Kunming Initiative, for example. New Delhi should also be broad-basing its China involvement and actively encourage closer ties between its states and China’s provinces. Equally significant for India is the fact that the Hu Jintao years have seen increased attention being paid to China’s interior provinces. This attention is only likely to intensify and could have important implications for the outcome of the boundary talks between India and China.


Two, at a much broader level, given the political instability and the ‘difficulties’ of Western-style multi-party democracy in the rest of South Asia, India must seriously consider whether, the Chinese one-party model might not increasingly come to be seen as an alternative and whether India needs to do more as a role model for multi-party democracy in the region.

Original Article: ā€œLeadership Change in China and Implications for India,ā€ IPCS Article No. 2411, 7 November 2007.


Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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