How Does China Choose its Leaders?

China has become a very popular topic for a number of reasons; some are concerned with how much American debt China holds, while others believe that the military is gearing up for a war of aggression and still others fear the outsourcing of manufacturing that China has been very willing to accept. In addition, China is generally, in any given quarter, the fastest growing economy on Earth. These concerns may make outsiders wonder how the Chinese political system works and how a Communist political structure might select the men who run this dynamic nation. This column will first analyze the positions within the power structure, then examine the current leadership and finally discuss the process by which new leaders come to power, including who the new leaders are likely to be in the 2012 transition.

First, let’s take a look at the highest positions of power in China. The Chinese system of government, unlike the United States, has a president and a prime minister. The president and the prime minister in China have similar roles to their counterparts in modern Turkey or Russia. The president is the head of state and is in theory, the leadership of the nation (though this has been an interesting study in Russia), while the prime minister can be understood by analyzing his title. Many countries have a foreign minister, rather than a secretary of state and a finance minister rather than a treasury secretary. All the ministers of a given nation report to the prime minister (prime of course, symbolizing first or primary). Here, the prime minister is the chief overseer of day to day operations, somewhat akin to a Corporate Operations Officer (COO) for the government. In effect, the prime minister takes care of the routine things so that the president can concentrate on further development and implementation of the state’s goals.

So who are the current leaders? At present, the Chinese government is led by president Hu Jintao and prime minister Wen Jiabao. Hu’s tenure has been considered simultaneously a great success and a cause for alarm by other nations. During Hu’s presidency, China has emerged as an important and powerful nation, as economic growth and standards of living within the country have risen sharply. China has overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest national economy and has also added its name as a third player in outer space. Chinese entrepreneurs and state-owned Chinese companies have prospered so much during this period that China is currently busy contemplating ways to reduce the gap between the new rich and the poor. Militarily, China has developed a new stealth fighter in addition to an anti-aircraft carrier missile, ostensibly designed to limit the United States’ ability to position its carriers. Negatively, Hu has endured the stinging effect of other nations’ accusations of currency manipulation, a reputation for both hostility to foreign businesses that clash with the government and intellectual property theft. Domestically, there has been an internal groundswell of growing political opposition, which has been contained through rising expenses on internal security and detainments of political dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize and Ai Weiwei, an artist who is most famous for designing the Olympic Stadium used in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. China, for the first time last year (2010) spent more on domestic security than was spent on the military. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has become well-known as the most popular member of the ruling class and frequently spends free time in “poor, rural areas, cameras on hand” (Dyer, 2011, p. 19). No matter whose side you may find yourself on, there is no argument over whether China has power these days. But who will hold the reigns when these men retire?

The Chinese system is designed to allow future leaders to “apprentice” under the current figures, and the president and prime minister both have a future leader working for them. Current president Hu Jintao is likely to be followed by Xi Jinping (Xi is pronounced Shee), while the prime minister Wen Jiabao will most likely be succeeded by Li Keqiang (Keqiang is pronounced Ke-chang). During the time they are waiting for power, they must go out of their way to avoid controversial topics, lest they find themselves on the wrong side of the Politburo Standing Committee. The Committee is the country’s most important decision-making body is the group that runs the Chinese Communist Party and appoints all new leaders. In 2012 and subsequent election years, the Politburo Standing Committee will permit the vice-chair and vice-premier to succeed their predecessors and will subsequently appoint two new candidates for the vice-presidency and the vice-premiership according to political desirability, experience and merit. Both of these men appear to have some leanings toward more political openness: Xi Jinping’s father actually condemned the killings in Tiananmen Square, while Li Keqiang was actually elected head of the student assembly at the university he attended. This development is important because many in the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) were not happy with the school’s decision to allow student elections. Elections to them were a sign of Western liberalism.

Will this signal an opening of Chinese politics? Jailed artist Ai Weiwei doesn’t believe any major changes are on the immediate horizon. He states that, despite these hopes, “We are not expecting much from this next generation of leaders. Maybe the generation after. After another decade, they will be more open in their ideas” (Dyer, 2011, p. 19). While Chinese economics is becoming less-Communist by the day, the political scene is still a one-party apparatus with no direct hints at any form of structural change to permit a more democratic form of government to emerge. As discussed before, the internal security concern is the result of a political establishment that realizes its form of government is, to say the least, out of fashion among the people. Change is coming; the question is whether the establishment will create the future structure or if the people will force it upon them. Regardless of the outcome, China’s near future will be very interesting to watch.

Further reading on China:

Dyer, G. (2011, March 05-06). Who will be China’s next leaders? Financial Times – Weekend Edition , pp. Life & Arts 1, 19. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/b7106090-4471-11e0-931d-00144feab49a.html#axzz1KI0T93kW

Saturday, B. A. (2011, April 01). Chinese Nuclear Strategy: Peace or War? Retrieved April 01, 2011, from http://thesaturdaysyndicate.com: https://thesaturdaysyndicate.com/2011/04/01/chinese-nuclear-strategy-peace-or-war/

Saturday, B. A. (2011, March 16). Does China deserve to have its own peace prize? Retrieved March 16, 2011, from http://thesaturdaysyndicate.comhttps://thesaturdaysyndicate.com/2011/03/16/chinese_peace_prize/

About Barry Saturday

The author is a Lexington, Ky-based financial advisor and formerly taught high school social studies for Fayette County Public Schools. Along with a M.A. in Education, his educational background consists of a B.A. in Foreign Languages and International Economics and an M.A. in Diplomacy with a concentration in Global Commerce. In 2012, he finished a two-month stint student teaching in Xi'an, China, and recently (2018) ran for City Council in Lexington, KY (District 4: Tates Creek / Nicholasville Rd area). Today's news outlets profit most from incendiary, surface-level appeals to emotion, which is poisoning much of our political discourse nationwide. Barry created this site in order to learn more about our world and share that knowledge with others. He hopes this site, aimed at an educated audience, will provide objective information for those seeking greater clarity and understanding than is often available in the current news environment. If you like what you see, feel free to comment and share with your network.

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