Chinese leadership: speculation begins on who will take power in 2022

Thoughts turn to who might lead the country when new president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang retire

At noon on Thursday, the Chinese Communist party's new seven-person politburo standing committee walked on to a red-carpeted stage at Beijing's Great Hall of the People, ending months, if not years, of speculation over who would make the lineup.

Yet just as Barack Obama's re-election led American pundits to ask who will run in 2016, China watchers are now mulling over who might become China's top leaders when new president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang retire in 2022.

For many analysts, this is more than idle guesswork: understanding the party's up-and-coming stars means understanding its priorities. They say hopes for political reform, already dulled by the announcement of an overwhelmingly conservative standing committee, are unlikely to be revived by the new generation of leaders. Many of them have been groomed into positions of power by former president Hu Jintao, a cautious bureaucrat who has long rewarded adherence to the status quo.

"Conventional wisdom is the idea that this is the generation that will have more foreign exposure, or a bit more experience abroad, and this will make them more cosmopolitain or outward looking," said Rana Mitter, a professor of Chinese politics at Oxford University.

"I'm not very sure that this is what's going on here."

Topping a long list of 2022 hopefuls is Hu Chunhua, party secretary of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region – a security maven who is often called Little Hu for his close relationship with the former president.

Experts also mention Hunan province party secretary Zhou Qiang and Jilin province party secretary Sun Zhengcai, a former agricultural minister, as notable rising stars.

Hu and Sun, both 49, were on Thursday named to China's new 25-member politburo, the country's top decision-making body. Zhou, 52, who once worked in the ministry of justice, could become the country's next top judge, according to the South China Morning Post.

Hu, Sun and Zhou belong to the "sixth generation" of Communist leaders since Mao established the People's Republic of China in 1949. They came of age during Mao's tumultuous Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 – giving them deep appreciation for political stability – and launched their careers just as China was opening up to the outside world.

The current president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang belong to the fifth generation of leaders; Hu Jintao and former premier Wen Jiabao belong to the fourth.

Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore, said that today's party elites may be more cautious in grooming their successors. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang leapfrogged to the politburo standing committee five years ago without first sitting on the 25-member politburo, he said.

"I think these people will have to be placed in provincial leadership positions for another four or five years before they move to the central leadership," said Bo. "They need to gain additional local experience."

Willy Lam, a Chinese politics expert at the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, wrote that incentive systems laid out by Hu Jintao make it unlikely that the sixth generation would enact real political change. Third-generation leaders such as Deng Xiaoping strived to strike a balance between professional competence and communist zeal, he wrote in a 2010 report called Changing of the Guard. Yet Hu has unwaveringly given priority to "morality,'' party-speak for devotion, above other qualities.

"Fifth- and sixth-generation cadres have yet to display originality of thinking and capability for breakthroughs in governance," Lam wrote.

He has a lot in common with Zhou, a Hunan native with an undergraduate degree in law. Both are former student leaders from humble, agrarian families; both attained plum government posts at uncommonly young ages. Sun is a slight anomaly — he read a doctoral degree in agriculture, according to a report in the China Leadership Monitor, and spent a year as an exchange student in the United Kingdom.

Analysts say that it may not be possible to truly gauge sixth generation leaders' potential to join the standing committee for years.

"Some of them will make it but they'll have to toe the new line and show their faithfulness to Xi Jinping and the new leadership," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Their jobs won't be easy. China still grapples with endemic issues of corruption, inequity and environmental degradation.

Lam wrote: "The onus is now on Hu Chunhua, Zhou and other sixth-generation ... luminaries to prove to their colleagues – and 1.3 billion Chinese – that they have what it takes to, in patriarch Deng's memorable words, 'prop up the sky' at times of monumental challenges."


Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

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