China’s recent leadership transition was widely depicted as a triumph for conservative hard-liners and a setback for the cause of reform—a characterisation that has deepened the gloominess that pervades Western perceptions of China. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang—the top two officials in China’s new governing council (the Standing Committee of the Politburo)—are both well educated, well travelled, and sophisticated thinkers who bring a wealth of experience to the many challenges that China faces. As so-called Fifth Generation leaders, they continue the steady progress in competence that has marked each of China’s leadership transitions since the emergence of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s.
While it is entirely premature to judge the style and direction that China’s new leaders will take, three early hints are worth noting. First, Xi’s assumption of power is more complete than was the case in earlier transitions. By immediately taking the reins of both the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Central Military Commission, he has a greater opportunity to put his personal stamp on policy than his predecessors had at the start of their administrations.
Yes, China governs by a consensus of the Standing Committee. But Xi is well positioned to drive the thinking of a now-leaner decision-making body (downsized from nine members to seven). Moreover, he has long favoured a market-friendly, scientific approach to economic development, which will be vital to China’s future.
Second, Li Keqiang—the presumptive incoming premier—could be the big surprise in the new leadership team. Unlike the current premier, Wen Jiabao, who was third in the chain of command for the past ten years, Li has been elevated to number two, which suggests a greater potential for power-sharing between the CCP and the government at the top of China’s new team.
With a PhD in economics, Li, who, as executive vice-premier, headed the all-important “Central Committee Finance and Economy Leading Small Group”, is especially well equipped to deal with the long-awaited structural transformation of China’s economy. Indeed, having overseen China 2030—an extraordinary joint report recently produced by the World Bank and China’s own high-level think tank, the Development Research Center—he has a deep understanding of the roadmap that China must embrace. His promotion could be a major step up from Wen, who emphasised rhetoric and strategy more than implementation.
Third, and contrary to prevailing wisdom in the West, Wang Qishan, one of China’s savviest and most experienced senior