Behind the Headline: New Leaders Take Over China

For the first time, the public and press meet China’s new rulers. From front to back: Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhenzheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli. Image from Reuters and Xinhua.

Don’t think that our presidential election last week is the only major news regarding leadership transitions around the world this month. Indeed, the news out of China may soon be far more important. Yesterday, the public and press were introduced to the seven men who now rule China, and are likely to do so for the next ten years. China has undergone one of the most stunning periods of economic growth and social change in recent history, and it now is counted among the world’s superpowers, as evidenced by the fact it has the world’s third-largest economy.

Yet the country is also facing a number of crucial challenges that the country’s new leaders must face. The economy may still be growing, but it is slowing down, as the global recession’s impact sinks in. The rapid growth has brought wealth to a few and a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle previously unheard of to many, but poverty is still a huge problem as many are left behind by the changes. Corruption remains rampant, as evidenced by the huge scandal with the popular politician Bo Xilai when his wife Gu Kailai was accused and convicted of murdering a British businessman earlier this year. Chinese social media sites like Sina Weibo are showing that the people distrust their government and leaders. And on top of all of that, China’s relations with foreign countries could have a huge impact on the United States and the world.

The decisions the seven men in the above photo make could make the difference between whether China continues to be a major power or implodes and collapses, whether it remains peaceful or launches a potentially catastrophic war, whether its people continue to see a better future or are stuck in the despair of poverty, and whether China learns to work with the United States as friends or becomes our main global rival.

While Cat Flag can’t predict the future, it can take you Behind the Headline.

How does China pick its leaders, anyway?

Mao Zedong gained power by overthrowing Chiang Kai-Shek in a Communist revolution (okay, so he technically only drove him to Taiwan) and then ruled China until the day he died. There was then a struggle for power in the ruling Communist Party of China, which was won by Deng Xiaoping, who also ruled until he died. After that, the Party’s leadership decided they were done with strongmen ruling for life, and that power should be handed down to the next generation every few years. In 2002, then-ruler Jiang Zemin and his peers retired, and Hu Jintao became China’s new supreme leader. Now, it’s Hu Jintao’s turn to retire, and Xi Jinping will be taking his place.

This guy.

He will be China’s supreme leader, but he will be assisted by six other top officials, who together form the….

(*deep breath*)

…Central Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China.

This committee of seven will basically rule China for the next ten years, and then the cycle will be repeated again. Of course, China is not a democracy, it is a Communist dictatorship. (The word “Communist” is being used very loosely here, since, you know, you can find McDonald’s, KFC, Starbucks, Estee Lauder, and Levi’s all over China.) The people do not vote for who gets to be in the Central Politi- thingamajig.

The way it’s supposed to work, according to the Communist Party’s Constitution, is that Party members elect local and provincial Party congresses, who then elect the National People’s Congress, which then elects the Central Committee, which then elects the Politburo, and the super-mega-power-committee is a part of that Politburo. In effect, it’s a super-indirect election from bottom to top, kind of like our Electoral College, only bigger and more complicated.

But even that isn’t really how it works, either. It’s not really a secret at all that the multi-tier election system is just a big, scripted ceremony with no substance, and that all the decisions have been made long beforehand.

Wait, decided by whom?

That turns out to be one of the hardest questions to answer right now, because the Party’s internal proceedings are extremely secretive, and nobody who isn’t one of the Communist Party’s upper elite knows for sure what’s going on behind closed doors.

However, most people seem to agree that there are at least two (if not more) factions within the Party that struggle for power. These factions are based partly on their political agendas – reformers vs. conservatives, for instance – and partly by personal networking, as people who are hired or promoted by one guy are expected to back that guy up in future political struggles. For example, according to this analysis by the Economist, five of the seven members of this committee of awesomeness are members of the “princeling” faction (so-called because most of its members are children of top Party leaders of the past), including the top man Xi Jinping.

It is also widely believed that the older “retired” generations still have a lot of control over this process, basically arranging who their own successors will be.

So, who is Xi Jinping?

Photo by Feng Li of Getty Images.

The son of a war hero in the Long March, Xi is by all accounts an imposing guy. He is more than 6 feet tall, and by all accounts has a commanding presence when he walks in a room. He is pragmatic and down-to-earth; he is known to eat in canteens with ordinary workers.

When Xi was a youth, his father was sent to prison for falling foul of Mao Zedong, and like many educated youths from privileged families, he was put in a forced labor program called the “Down to the Countryside” movement, where he lived and worked on a peasant farm. Eventually, after the chaotic Cultural Revolution ended, he was able to study at Tsinghua University and get a degree in chemical engineering. He has moved up the Party ranks gradually over the years, attracting more and more attention from the top leaders.

One way Xi is remarkably different from his predecessors is his mouth. Chinese politicians usually speak very carefully in a jargon-filled, meaningless bureaucrat language. This is an actual quote from outgoing leader Hu Jintao’s speech: “We should improve the way in which income is distributed, protect lawful income, increase the income of low-income groups, adjust excessively high income, and prohibit illicit income.”

Xi Jinping, however, has a habit of telling it like it is and calling a spade a spade. In 2004, he scolded Party members by saying, “Rein in your spouses, children, relatives, friends and staff, and vow not to use power for personal gain.” In 2009, he famously ranted before a crowd in Mexico, “There are some well fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than point fingers at our affairs. China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; third, cause troubles for you. What else is there to say?”

This openness and brutal honesty may be off-putting to Communist Party elite, but it seems to endear him to the Chinese public.

Another way Xi is a different kind of leader is that he spent some time living in the United States, at a farm in Iowa. He also has a daughter studying at Harvard University. His wife, Peng Liyuan, is a folk singer.

Who are the other members of this committee?

Li Keqiang is a true rags-to-riches story of a man who rose from the bottom rungs of Chinese society. He is to be the second-in-command of the new order. The favorite of outgoing leader Hu Jintao, Li is a champion of China’s poor.




Zhang Dejiang was probably picked because of how he tackled the fallout from the Bo Xilai scandal earlier this year, demonstrating his ability to keep a cool head in a crisis. While his boss Xi Jinping has ties to the United States, Zhang has ties to North Korea, having studied there for two years and started his career near the border between the two countries.



Yu Zhengsheng is probably one of China’s most well-connected figures, with close ties to the last three rulers of China. His father was also briefly married to Jiang Qing, who would go on to be Mao Zedong’s wife. He is also co-founder of two of China’s most successful businesses: Haier electronics and Tsingtao beer.



Liu Yunshan is the man in charge of China’s propaganda and censorship machine. In China, freedom of the press as Americans understand it doesn’t exist, and based on things Liu has said in public it seems he intends to keep it that way.




Wang Qishan is the most familiar face among the group, at least to American businessmen and diplomats. For years, he has traveled extensively to represent China at economic summits, trade negotiations, and the like. The former banker is said to have a “wicked sense of humor”.




Zhang Gaoli is the dark horse of the group. Little is known about him or his opinions, and he has kept a low profile until now. He was, however, very close to former ruler Jiang Zemin, which may in part explain his appointment.




These six officials will be something like our President’s cabinet, except that our President chooses who is in his cabinet while it is unclear just how much choice Xi Jinping had in picking his committee. Whatever happens, these seven men will have to learn to work together for China’s, and the world’s, greater good.

Information from BBC News, the Economist, and Business Insider.