Continuity and Change in China's Political Elite


-Swaran Singh, Research Fellow, IDSA


As much of the haze of media speculations gives way to concrete information on the decisions of the historic 15th Party Congress and its first Plenum, it is a balanced blend of continuity and change that seems to have emerged as the hallmark of its major achievements. As a result, while it has succeeded in injecting a whiff of fresh air to organisations like the Standing Committee of the Politbureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCCPC), the Politbureau's Standing Committee, Secretariat of the CCCPC, the Central Military Commission of the CCCPC, and the Standing Committee of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, leaders like Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, Li Ruihuan and Zhu Rongji have all been re-elected to all their positions and some of the minor adjustments have not really caused any major upheavals. Some more of these piecemeal changes, in fact, are likely to come in the near future. Premier Li Peng, for example, who till lately was widely expected to retire from public life following completion of his two terms as China's Premier in March next year is said to have struck some sort of a compromise deal with President Jiang Zemin and is now expected to replace Qiao Shi as Chairman of the National People's Congress (NPC). Similarly, China's liberal minded Minister for Economic Relations and Foreign Trade, Wu Yi has also been elected as the alternate member of the Politbureau and is expected to get another promotion in the State Council and replace China's high-profile Senior Vice Premier and Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen who has been promoted and made full member of the Politbureau, which consists of China's innermost political elite.

Amongst the major losers, the top 7-member Standing Committee of the Politbureau, two important leaders, Qiao Shi (ranked third) and Liu Huaqing (ranked fifth), have been peacefully retired. Similarly, three important leaders have also been retired from China's second most important 7-member organ of the Chinese power elite called the Central Military Commission (CMC). While Premier Li Peng who ranked second in the Chinese ruling elite has been re-elected, strong speculations on his exit have not fully disappeared and even now the future does not seem to hold great promise for him. Similarly, Deng Xiaoping's own son, Deng Pufang also lost the race, thus, putting an end to the rising influence of those who had evolved a coterie around Deng during his last few months.

What makes them important is that despite the elaborate public debate on various issues that preceded the 15th Party Congress, not many of these changes were really expected till the last moment. This smooth operation is typical of Chinese guanxi and the outcome seems to have favoured President Jiang Zemin. At the end of this five-yearly stock-taking exercise, therefore, much to the disbelief of China's detracters, despite these conspicuous exits and the controversial open letter by China's famous Tiananmen dissident and former heir of China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Zhiyang, as also despite doomsday predictions by various other commentators around the world whose speculations about the "bubble burst" are said to have hastened the inner power struggle following the death of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, the Party appears fully united behind its current "third generation" leadership with Jiang Zemin being still at the core.

The Guanxi Principle

On the surface, most of these retirements have been justified on the basis of age and health. Some sort of public campaign had also been built around these issues during the last few years. A more open run up for this Party Congress had started in February this year when following the death of Deng Xiaoping, the debate between the moderates and the hardliner leftists had become fairly open. Whereas powerful orthodox Marxists criticised Jiang's bold plan to reduce the role of the state in the economy and described Deng's Socialism with Chinese Characteristics as ideologically incorrect, Jiang Zemin went to the extent of warning his Party cadres for vigilance against this radical leftism. Occasions like the Handover Ceremony of the transfer of Hong Kong and the Beidaihe Summit were used by both sides to project their views on China's future formations at the top. As always happened during all earlier political successions in the history of Communist China, this has also set off an unprecedented surge of patriotism with each leader taking a more radical position. But much of this anti-Jiang sentiment had not really picked up during these last few months.

Jiang's friends in the official media, on the other hand, had continued to bombard the public with information about, and justifications, of Jiang's new ideas and ideals. Xinhua, for example, had repeatedly talked of how a new contingent of outstanding middle-aged and younger cadres were expected to enter the new CCCPC. As a result, the 15th Party Congress and its first Plenum did vote in younger faces to its various committees and commissions including two new leaders who have been promoted to its all powerful Standing Committee of the CCCPC's Politbureau. The first most vivid example of this new manner can be seen in the way in which the Chinese wizard of liberalisation, Zhu Rongji, has jumped the ladder and so smoothly been promoted from fifth to third position in the order of precedence amongst China's top leadership. Similarly, a much younger 54-year-old Hu Jintao has been promoted from seventh to fifth position in the Standing Committee of the Politbureau which is another major example of a youngster being allowed to jump the ladder. (See Table 1.)

Table 1. The Standing Committee of the Politbureau

Ranking 14th CCCPC* 15th CCCPC*

First Jiang Zemin Jiang Zemin

Second Li Peng Li Peng

Third Qiao Shi Zhu Rongji

Fourth Li Ruihuan Li Ruihuan

Fifth Zhu Rongji Hu Jintao

Sixth Liu Huaqing Wei Jianxing

Seventh Hu Jintao Li Lanqing

* CCCPC: Central Committee of Communist Party of China

The two new faces in the Standing Committee of the Politbureau, Wei Jianxing and Li Lanqing, who have made it to the top for the first time had both been members of the CPC Central Committee's Politbureau since the 14th Party Congress and are known for their closeness to Jiang Zemin. Wei Jianxing had particularly earned fame as Secretary of the CPC's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Similarly, Li Lanqing, who has been China's Vice-Minister and later Vice-Premier incharge of foreign and domestic trade. However, proving once again the strength of the guanxi principle, these two promotions have reportedly come from different cliques within the leadership. Li Lanqing has long been identified as a Qiao protege, and his elevation has also been described as part of a deal under which Qiao Shi agreed to step down. Of the newly elected CMC, apart from Admiral Liu Huaqing, Zhang Zhen who is 83 has also retired on the basis of age and health. Amongst the major gainers in the newly elected CMC, General Zhang Wannian and General Chi Haotian have been promoted from being ordinary members of the earlier CMC to First Vice-Chairman and Executive Vice-Chairman of the CMC of the 15th Party Congress. On the other hand, Wang Ke and Wang Ruilin are the two new members inducted to the CMC. (See Table 2.) All of them have been known as being closer to President Jiang Zemin.

Table 2. Central Military Commission

Position 14th Party Congress (1992) 15th Party Congress (1997)

Chairman Jiang Zemin Jiang Zemin

Vice Chairmen Admiral Liu Huaqing Zhang Wannian

Zhang Zhen Chi Haotian

Members Chi Haotian, Zhang Wannian Fu Quanyou, Yu Yongbo

Yu Yongbo, Fu Quanyou Wang Ke, Wang Ruilin

Corruption, Age and Health

Beneath the surface, however, in making this smooth spectacle possible, it is his well planned drive against corruption, ill-health and old age that has been used by President Jiang Zemin as the major method in promoting his Shanghai clique to crucial party positions and sidelining his opponents. For many, therefore, it is extremely important to underline the fact that both Admiral Liu Huaqing who is 82 and Qiao Shi who is 74 were also known to be not too happy with Jiang's policies which appears to be a more potent reason for their unceremonious exit. Admiral Liu, for example, was severely opposed to Jiang's desire to undermine the People's Liberation Army's (PLA's) role in politics as also to Jiang's determination to reduce the PLA by about 500,000 troops during the next three years. Similarly, Qiao Shi had been the one who was originally offered the post of Party General Secretary before Jiang was flown in from Shanghai to take over the Party's command at that crucial juncture in June 1989. Lately, he was also seen as a strong contender who did not fully agree with Jiang's extra-push to economic reforms. Zhu Rongji, on the other hand, who has been known for being Jiang's right hand man is expected to emerge as China's leader for the future. He is already credited for China's successful macro-economic control which has resulted in bringing down inflation and "soft-landing" of China's overheated economy and he has, in fact, already emerged as the darling of world leaders and media commentators.

Jiang's Personal Style

While so much has been written about Jiang's bold policy initiatives towards privatising China's 370,000 State Enterprises and how the threat, if any, will arise from the backlash of unemployment, bankruptcies and corruption that this might unleash, little attention has been paid to the personal style of Jiang's functioning as a political operator which has been so much on display during these last few months following the death of Deng Xiaoping. It is this capability to control and manoeuvre that will sustain Jiang's leadership against any potential crisis. Also considering that China's rulers depend so much on the principle of guanxi (people-to-people network or personal loyalties) not much space has been devoted to understanding the profile of people who now constitute his new team which will be at the helm at least for the next few years. And during this time, all these nuances are going to have a far-reaching impact on China's future and some of this change is already showing its impact on the entire range of China's socio-political fabric. Without probing any further into history or making assumptions on the present and future, evidence of these new symptoms for change could be seen in the very manner in which Jiang's leadership conducted itself during the 15th Party Congress meetings. To cite a few unusual features, the 15th Party Congress included the following firsts:

* This was the first time when dates of various preparatory meetings and Congress sessions were known in advance leading to a virtual media hype on the 15th CPC.

* For the first time, foreign media was allowed to have a first-hand experience of the CPC's functioning and allowed to attend some of the selective sessions of the CPC.

* For the first time, over 2,000 delegates to the Congress elected their leaders in a secret ballot and as a sign of increasing democratisation, the number of candidates was about 5 per cent more than those finally selected.

* For the first time, China's political leadership has come to be headed clearly by a technocrat who has no military background as also no distinction of being one of China's Long March veterans.

* Most important of all, for the first time, the new Politbureau does not have any representation from the PLA which has traditionally been known as the kingmaker in Communist China's policy.

* For the first time again, President Jiang Zemin has been finally recognised in his own right and all his apparent contenders have been either purged or sidelined making him sure of leading China into the 21st century.

A New Agenda for Political Reforms

Apart from these major pointers to the trends in the future where opening up may not remain confined only to China's economic system, so much is available for analyses and can be read between the lines. Jiang Zemin, for example, opened his speech to the 15th Party Congress vowing to "blaze new trials" with reforms to forge "a more responsive government" though in the same breath he warned that these changes in the political system would in no way loosen the ruling party's monopoly on power. Talking of reforming State Enterprises, Jiang also underlined the problem of bloated bureaucracy which, he said, calls for "an urgent solution." To quote he said: "Unwieldy organisations, overstaffing, failure to separate the functions of the government from those of enterprises and serious bureaucracy hamper the deepening of reforms and economic development and impair the relationship between the party and the masses." He also stressed that People's Congresses at various levels will take a more active role, hinting that the practice of allowing villagers to elect local officials through democratic polls will be extended to the cities. Also, despite the continuance of the authoritarian system, Jiang has been a strong supporter of secret-ballot elections for the lowest level village leaders since 1987 and a glimpse of this could be seen at the 15th Party Congress voting for the highest channels.

Similarly, Jiang has also been consistently campaigning against the deteriorating political ethics of China's political elite. And here, Jiang has repeatedly cited from his six-point module of what he calls threats from "extravagance and decadence" in public life. These six principles include the following in their gist:

* Party cadres frequenting high-consumption entertainment places and some even so degenerated as to go gambling and whoring on public funds.

* Excessive purchase of limousines and telecommunications equipment including the latest "big brother" or the mobile telephone.

* Office buildings of super standards and huge funds being spent to purchase and decorate the residential quarters of Party cadres.

* Unduly large numbers of commemorative activities in various names and uncontrolled distribution of souvenirs and gifts.

* Deluge of meetings on all sorts of occasions and topics, necessary or otherwise.

* Arbitrary payment of shockingly large amounts of subsidies and allowances of various kinds in violation of relevant stipulations.

Economic Reforms

A similar new agenda can also be seen throughout his prescriptions for economic reforms. Describing the current stage of China's development as the "initial stage of socialism," Jiang has tried to expand Deng's theories to his new definitions where the period from the present to the first decade of the next century will be one of vital importance wherein China can successfully establish a fairly sound market economic structure and maintain sustained rapid economic growth. But nothing perhaps has been as thorny as his views on providing a greater thrust to reforms in the slumbering money-losing and huge state sector. In fact, experimental economic reforms have already been launched in about 120 State Enterprises and expanded reforms are expected to reach the following five goals:

* Firstly, a batch of large-scale enterprises shall be given shape in the key fields and their role as the mainstay of the national economy brought into full limelight.

* Secondly, by the end of the century, these enterprises should turn themselves into self-disciplined legal entities responsible for their own profits or losses.

* Thirdly, efforts shall be made to promote a rational flow of resources to enhance the capability of these enterprises to compete in domestic and international markets.

* Fourthly, steps shall be taken to gradually separate the functions of the government from those of an enterprise and confining the state's role in macro-economic regulation.

* And finally, Jiang has strongly endorsed the ideal that during this transfer to market socialism in China, close attention should be paid towards building a multi-layered social guarantee system throughout the country.

Similar has been his emphasis on various other aspects of China's state policies which are being gradually reformulated to fit into Jiang Zemin's emerging world view. And here, apart from his thrust on economic growth and State Enterprises, Jiang has also been promoting his moderate views on larger conceptual issue like family values, religion and nationalism which have lately come to be another of his prominent preoccupations. Much to the chagrin of hardline leftists, Jiang has been advocating against the parochial view of being a sovereign country and professes his full support for learning efficient management techniques from other nationalities and countries. Also, his views on "spiritual civilisation" where people will be of one heart and one mind has some-times been criticised as anathema to China's Communist ethos. He, however, is fully aware of the perils of this emerging into some kind of a creed or even degenerating into another Cultural Revolution and has repeatedly urged Party cadres for a down-to-earth approach and to guard against "rushing headlong into a mass reaction." In fact, a 24-member Central Leading Committee for the Building of Spiritual Civilisation has already been set up following a resolution to that effect that was passed at the Sixth Plenary session of the 14th CPC Central Committee last autumn which had already set the tone on the rise of President Jiang Zemin.

A Team of Civilian Technocrats

At the bottom of this new spirit for change and this increasing confidence and transparency in undertaking his economic opening up and political reforms, of course, lies the success of the earlier endeavours which brought about a boom in China's economic reforms during the 1990s. What also distinguishes the present team most from earlier teams is that none of the PLA representatives was elected to the Standing Committee of the Politbureau which is regarded as a most influential organ in China's governance. There have been occasions when as many as three to four PLA Generals were members of the Politbureau Standing Committee. It is this trend in China's leadership that marks a fundamental new trend in the political operations of China's new leadership which seems to have increasingly become independent of its armed forces which had traditionally been the kingmakers in their own right. In the present situation, Jiang Zemin remains the only direct connection between the civil and military top leadership i.e. the Standing Committee of the Politbureau and the CMC as he heads both these organs. For some commentators, there also seems to be a clear attempt to reduce the relative significance of the armed forces making it like "the barrel of the gun now follows the (political) power" and no longer "power flows from the barrel of the gun." This new trend of the PLA being subordinate and an instrument of the Party has, in fact, been stressed many times over during these last few years since Deng's famous "tour of the South" in early 1992.

As regards professional qualifications and background of China's current seven top leaders who form the Standing Committee of its CCCPC's Politbureau, the top three are electrical engineers, the fourth leader is an architect, the fifth a hydropower engineer, the sixth a metallurgy engineer, and the seventh had been an automobile engineer by training. All of them have an excellent track record and have worked their way up very gradually with some of them even having been stripped of their positions during the Cultural Revolution. Jiang Zemin is the only leader who suddenly jumped the ladder and became the Party General Secretary in June 1989. As regards their being cosmopolitan, most of them have travelled far and wide both inside and outside their own country. While the top three, fifth and seventh can converse in English, almost all of them know Russian, though all of them still prefer to make formal speeches from the written texts and in Chinese. With globalisation being the trend and economics being the main agenda, this team seems to make an ideal combination for the future governance of the Chinese state which shows all the potential to emerge as the new superpower. For a more thorough understanding of China's new political elite, this perhaps also calls for looking at the invidual profile of each of these seven who today constitute China's top leadership which is ordained to lead China's destiny for at least the coming five years.

Jiang Zemin

Unlike Mao Zedong who never bothered to be head of the state or General Secretary of the Party, or Deng Xiaoping who wielded all his power and influence from being the Chairman of the Party's Central Military Commission, Jiang Zemin has continued to zealously guard his possession of all three top positions to which he was once again re-elected at the First Plenum of the 15th Party Congress. His need for these formal titles arises partly from the fact that unlike those two "great leaders" of China, Jiang Zemin has neither any military background nor is he a Long March veteran which are two basic qualifications that combined China's erstwhile great leaders' authority over both the Party and its armed forces. Besides, it was their role as revolutionaries that made them such great heroes in the eyes of the masses.

On the contrary, Jiang Zemin's rise to power during the late 1980s and China's performance under his leadership since has been a fairy tale to say the least. Shocked by the magnitude of the Tiananmen Square crisis in June 1989, Deng Xiaoping decided to favour projecting an entirely new face of China's Communist leadership. Jiang Zemin who was then Mayor of Shanghai was hand-picked to take over as the Party's General Secretary and steer China out of its most difficult times. He was soon elected to be the Chairman of the CMC at the 4th Plenum of the 13th Party Congress in November 1989 and later elected to be the President of the republic in March 1993. He has been repeatedly re-elected to these positions ever since. As regards performance, Jiang has been successful in making such a large sized economy achieve unbelievable growth rates that touched a height of 13.2 per annum for 1992 and now promise to make China the a largest economy of the world by 2005. On the political front, he has also been successful in breaking open China's isolation in all its dimensions, and completely uncharacteristic of China's leaders, has travelled far and wide and evolved personal equations with most world leaders. For his close affinity with intellectuals, his friends also call him "scholar statesman" who at 71 can still recite from memory poems from ancient Chinese and English literature which remains his personal strong mark compared to his contemporaries on the scene. And as has been so clearly displayed during the handover of Hong Kong and at the 15th Party Congress deliberations, Jiang has emerged far more important than being merely first amongst equals.

Li Peng

At 68, Li Peng was widely expected to be sidelined for being the leader who is seen as being responsible for the Tiananmen massacre of June 1989. But his being the foster son of Zhou En-lai provides him with a strong support amongst the CPC's cadres which enabled him to strike the alleged last minute deal with President Jiang Zemin as a result of which he has survived as the second most important leader. Li Peng was only three years old when his father was murdered by Kuomintang men and he was brought up by Zhou En-lai along with many other orphan children of Communist cadres which makes him the favourite of the masses, especially the downtrodden. Nevertheless, he is due to retire as Prime Minister next March and among the positions he is likely to get are either the Chairmanship of the NPC which falls vacant following the exit of Qiao Shi or Chairmanship of the Three Gorges Project which has been his brainchild. If portends are anything to go by, the future does not appear very bright for him. However, his political deftness in changing adverse situations into his favour can once again belie these predictions during the coming five years.

Zhu Rongji

Zhu Rongji is one leader who has jumped the ladder from a relatively obscure fifth position following the 14th Party Congress of 1992 to crucial third position in China's hierarchy of power following the re-election by the 15th Party Congress. What makes his position enviable is the fact that Premier Li Peng who occupies the second position is not expected to last very long and Zhu Rongji shows the potential to gradually work his way to the top. At 66, therefore, Zhu Rongji is very likely to be China's man for the future. Known as China's economic wizard who is believed to be solely responsible for China's miracle in curbing its high-flying inflation and "soft-landing" its overheated economy of the early 1990s, Zhu Rongji has an impressive track record and his expertise in macro-economic management and his good command over the English language has already made him the darling of the Chinese as also the outside world.

Zhu Rongji is also known as being an important member of Jiang's Shanghai clique and had succeeded Jiang as Mayor of Shanghai in 1987 from where he was brought to Beijing as Vice-Premier in the State Council in 1991 and was elected to the Standing Committee of the Politbureau in 1993. Zhu is believed to have masterminded Jiang's hotly debated policies of reforming China's State Enterprises and he particularly earned fame for his advocacy of "strict government" during his recent years as Governor of the People's Bank of China.

Li Ruihuan

Li Ruihuan has continued his fourth place in the order of precedence amongst China's top-ranking leaders. He heads an organisation which plays an important role in the promotion of socialist democracy in China known as the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The basic function of the CPPCC had been described as political consultation and democratic supervision to which Li has added participation and deliberations of state affairs. In the early 1990s, Li published a book titled "On Doing Practical Things for the People" which advocates how all other departments of the State Council should encourage public participation in their policy formulations and implementation. At home, although he has been a national leader for the last two decades, his wife remained a factory worker until her retirement.

Hu Jintao

Hu Jintao has been a unique case of being a young prodigy who has had many firsts in his political career. Five years ago, at the first Plenum of the 14th Party Congress, Hu Jintao became the youngest person ever to be elected to the Standing Committee of the Politbureau and now at 54, has once again jumped the ladder from seventh position to fifth position in China's top leadership. He was also the youngest ever to be elected to the CPC Central Committee at the 12th Party Congress in 1982. His earlier distinctions of being the youngest and popular first Secretary of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Youth League (1984-85), Secretary of the CPC Guishou Provincial Committee (1985-88) and later Secretary of the CPC Tibet Autonomous Region and then member of the Standing Committee of the Politbureau since 1992 make him a favourite especially of China's younger generations who will be leading China in the coming years. His former colleagues describe him as a very persuasive person, very good in coping with complicated situations with firm principles but flexible tactics and a man to watch in the future.

Wei Jianxing

At 66, Wei Jianxing is known for his last five years work as first Secretary of the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection which prosecuted more than 669,300 officials including expulsion of 121,500 during these last five years. Despite being known as Qiao Shi's protege, Wei's performance during these last few years has been particularly helpful for Jiang Zemin in settling his political equations. The most sensational was the arrest on September 9 (eve of the 15th Party Congress) of Beijing's Party boss and former Politbureau member and former Mayor of Beijing, Chen Xitong, making the way for Jiang's direct control over the running of the country's national capital region. Trained in business management in the former Soviet Union, he also fell victim to Mao's Cultural Revolution and later emerged as a trade union leader who become the President of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions in 1993. While the corruption case of Chen Xitong was exposed in 1995, Wei was appointed Secretary of the Beijing Municipal Party Committee which was another factor that brought him closer to the national political elite.

Li Lanqing

At 64, Li Lanqing has made his name as China's foreign trade expert and has been China's Vice-Minister and later Vice-Premier for international and domestic trade since 1986 when China has come to be the largest utiliser of overseas capital amongst the developing countries. In various positions he has been closely involved with economic issues like planning, trade, investment, etc., and is seen as having a quick mind, broad vision and strong abilities of leadership and macro-policy decisions. His ability to cope with thorny problems during various trade negotiations and his sense of humour have earned him a good name among the people in various circles.


In the end, all these winners and losers of the 15th Party Congress have been leaders and men of great calibre and skill as also not all these elections and assertion have been completely unexpected. Some of these new equations and changes had been in the air for quite some time and efforts had been made in making these changes effective as smoothly as possible. It is in this context that this five-yearly exercise of the Party Congress and re-election of various Party Commissions and Committees has come to obtain a short and decisive nature in the making of China's future leadership. Also considering that in China life and politics function on the basis of the guanxi principle, the new leadership will have to sooner or later evolve into a relatively more cohesive team and find its own ways and means to implement its vision of the future. And considering that the next five to ten years are going to be extremely crucial in making China the new superpower of the next century, it becomes critical as to who are the newly elected leaders at the 15th Party Congress and what are their likely perceptions and policies. Otherwise ancient civilisations, like the one that China is, do not change overnight and all that a generation of leadership can do is to either hasten or slow down the direction of change which might later prove to be good, bad or ugly. China's recent past itself presents the best example for this.