A guide to China’s leadership changes

Ahead of the selection of China’s new leadership on November 8th, Thomas König of ECFR’s China Programme explains what the process involves, who the new men will be, and why it matters.  

Ahead of the selection of China’s new leadership on November 8th, Thomas König of ECFR’s China Programme explains what the process involves, who the new men will be, and why it matters.


The once-in-a-decade selection of China’s leadership will take place at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which starts on November 8th and is likely to end on 14th November. The selection comes at a tumultuous time for China. The Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun scandal made headlines across the world. Tensions have been escalating with neighbours over the contested Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands. And as a forthcoming ECFR report will argue, China is moving into the third phase of its development since the Revolution – what we call China 3.0.

What happens on November 8th 2012?

Roughly 2,300 delegates from across the country will meet in Beijing. As well as municipalities, autonomous regions and provinces, among other things they will represent Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army, Central State Owned Enterprises and Central Banks and Financial Institutions. They will review the Party’s performance over the last five years and select members for the (200 member) Central Committee. This will then convene to appoint the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee. Rumours suggest the Politburo Standing Committee will have seven rather than the current nine members this year. The delegates will also rubber stamp decisions made by the outgoing leadership and by Party elders. 

What is the National Congress of the Communist Party of China?

Congresses are held every five years, and serve to appoint the central institutions of the Party (Central Committee, Politburo, Secretariat). The Congress’s final resolution establishes the Party’s policy lines and often revises the Party Constitution, offering leaders a chance to put their own imprints on it.

What is the National People’s Congress?

The National Congress is not the same as the National People’s Congress (NPC), which is China’s national legislature. The NPC only holds one session per year, in March. It appoints all high government positions, although these appointments are pre-cooked by the Party leadership. The NPC also debates and votes new laws, and although  this process offers no room for rejection, debate and nay votes can reveal a degree of internal dissent. The Party leaders slated for government roles after the November 2012 Party Congress will formally take their roles at the end of the next NPC session, in March 2013.

Why is the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China so important?

It represents a significant clearing out of many of those with their hands on the levers of power. 14 of the 25 Politburo members are due to retire, and seven of the nine current Politburo Standing Committee members will step down. Three quarters of the Central Military Commission, along with large portions of China’s ‘cabinet’ – the State Council – will also be replaced. Put simply, 60-70% of China’s top leadership will retire.

The new generation includes many ‘princelings’, the offspring of prominent influential senior Party officials (for instance Xi Jinping, whose father Xi Zhongxun is a former Vice-Premier), and members of the Communist Youth League (previously led by President Hu Jintao and Vice Premier Li Keqiang). In contrast to previous ‘technocratic’ leaders (all nine spots on the current Politburo Standing Committee are held by engineers), this ‘fifth generation’ of Chinese leaders comes from diverse educational backgrounds, often studying social sciences or the humanities.

Who are the new Chinese leaders?

Xi Jinping is expected to succeed President Hu Jintao. He will become the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party during the Party Congress, and President of the People’s Republic during the NPC 2013 session. The timing of his succession to Hu Jintao at the head of the Party and State Military Affairs commission is still unknown. Xi is currently overshadowed by his wife, Peng Liyuan, a major general in the PLA and an incredibly popular folksinger.

In 1969, Xi was sent to work in poverty-stricken Yanchuan County in Mao Zedong's ‘Down to the Countryside Movement’, encouraging (ie forcing) ‘the urban masses’ to learn from the peasants. The time Xi spent in relative poverty is important to his image, and the Communist Party wants to portray him less as a privileged princeling, more as a man who has experienced the life of some of China's poorest. His rise through the ranks of the Party has been fast, and includes a stint at the Military Affairs Commission and other PLA positions, as well as leadership posts in Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai.

Li Keqiang is set to succeed Wen Jiabao as Premier of the State Council. He has a close relationship with Hu Jintao, because he was involved with the Communist Youth League when it was led by Hu. Li studied law and economics (holding a doctorate), and has long held tenure in the province of Henan, before running Liaoning. A vice-premier since 2008, his portfolio includes economic policy.

What are their challenges and what does it mean to the rest of us?

The new Chinese leadership will face several challenges in the coming decade:

  • Social stability: There are around 300 million migrant workers currently struggling to integrate into urban China, and an increasing gap between the rich and poor. In 2011 there were around 180,000 ‘mass incidents’ (which involve more than 500 people and spill into public space). The Chinese government has significantly increased the public security budget, especially at the central government level where it rose by 68% between 2009 and 2011.
  • Changing the economic growth mode: China will have to complete the transition from an export-led economy with notoriously high labour, energy and environmental costs, to an economy powered by domestic consumption and innovation.
  • International affairs: The Xi-Li administration will need to improve relations with neighbouring countries, the US and the European Union. This will be difficult, as the coming Chinese leadership (out of necessity) will be primarily inward-looking, but forced to become more assertive externally. This tension is likely to affect any foreign engagement in the coming years. The EU-China relationship will continue to be dominated by economics. China’s domestic economic transformation will lead to a larger stake in Europe (particularly in FDI and financial inflows) and more interdependence, but as this could reinforce splits among EU member states it will need to be approached with more transparency and continued calls for reciprocal engagement.

In a visit to Ireland in February 2012 Xi said that “China will continue to support, in its own way, efforts of the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to address the European debt problem”, while Li Keqiang has written in the Financial Times that “China has high hopes for European ties”, calling for a “more open and co-operative […] inclusive and accommodating Europe”. The leadership change is an important opportunity to re-engage with China after a period dominated by the Eurozone crisis.

ECFR's forthcoming report on “China 3.0” will look into some of those issues in more detail:


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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Programme Co-ordinator

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