BEIJING — First came the flood of speculation this year about who would make China’s new leadership team. Now begins the frenzy over what that lineup means for the country’s increasingly frustrated citizens, its slowing economy and the Communist Party, which is struggling to keep its tight grip over both.
Experts are parsing the backgrounds of the seven new top leaders named Thursday and reaching, at times, widely different conclusions. But there are two take-aways on which almost everyone agrees: First, China’s outgoing president, Hu Jintao, was thoroughly beaten by his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, in the race to push key allies onto the ruling Politburo Standing Committee. Second, the near future appears bleak for drastic reform — politically, socially and, to some degree, economically.
“I am extremely disappointed by how conservatively dominated this Standing Committee is,” said Du Guang, a retired professor at the Central Party School. This moment of transition had offered hope of a new direction to many, he said, “but instead, it simply looks like a continuation of the past.”
The elevation of so many older, conservative allies of Jiang has relegated many potential reformers associated with Hu to the full Politburo, the second most powerful body. That could lead to a situation reminiscent of the gridlock in Washington, with a Democratic president and Republican-controlled House of Representatives, said David Shambaugh, an expert on Chinese politics at George Washington University. “This is a system that runs on consensus, and this is only going to make that more difficult.”
The first and most pressing issue the new leaders will tackle is China’s slowing and hamstrung economy. The party has long said its goal is to wean the country off its dependence on investment growth and exports while increasing domestic consumption. But changing policies could prove difficult, requiring a host of reforms — such as allowing interest rates to rise and letting China’s currency float freely — that party leaders have long resisted.
Equally difficult will be disassembling industries monopolized by state-owned enterprises, given the vested interest of high-level officials.
The leaders tapped Thursday also might not be the best fit for those problems. Although incoming premier Li Keqiang has economic training, many economists were rooting for a more prominent role in that area for Wang Qishan, who has deep experience and understanding of Western economies and leaders. Instead, perhaps in part out of fear that Wang’s expertise might undermine Li’s, Zhang Gaoli, former party chief of Tianjin, appears to have the economic portfolio.
Wang, nicknamed the “fireman” for his reputation of taking efficient, decisive action on thorny problems, was elevated to the Standing Committee, but he was put in charge of inner-party discipline. He could play a vital role, however, by tackling the rampant corruption among China’s officials.
Such corruption, leaders have acknowledged throughout the past week, is a top problem threatening the party’s authority and future, especially in light of recent scandals over massive fortunes amassed by leaders’ families.
There are also other signs of possible modernization of the party, albeit in baby steps.
The seven new leaders represent the beginnings of a generational shift compared with the previous lineup, mostly engineers who often viewed the country’s problems as levers to pull and tweak in search of a solution.
The new Standing Committee includes a more diverse group with backgrounds that include law, economics and history. Several of the men spent their formative years witnessing the suffering that resulted from the Cultural Revolution’s policy disasters. The new leaders can also draw on much greater administrative experience, with most having run two or more large provinces with populations and economies equal to those of small European nations.
“This is the result of a deliberate push for greater administrative capacity at the top,” said Robert Kuhn, author of a biography of Jiang.
The new leaders also might prove less beholden, at least superficially, to China’s old ideology. In his first address Thursday as the nation’s top leader, Xi Jinping neglected to include the usual boilerplate references to communist theories of the past.
“When I met Xi during his time in Zhejiang,” Kuhn said, “he told me: ‘I follow the ideologies of Marx, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang and Hu, but I don’t sit around all day thinking about these theories. I’m trying to run a government.’ ”
Another looming factor from Thursday’s announcement is the newly appointed Politburo team. Now within its ranks are the leaders who will compete in five years to replace retiring members of the new Standing Committee; they will also vie for the top spot when Xi retires in 10 years.
Although Hu lost the battle over Standing Committee seats, he successfully seeded the Politburo with several possible proteges. By the next transition,
Jiang, now 86, may be long gone, clearing the way for Hu to reassert authority.
But some cast doubt on that scenario, given Hu’s poor performance this time around.
“You see how badly Hu got his clock cleaned during this party congress, and it’s a sign that he never truly consolidated that power,” said Shambaugh, of George Washington University.
Others noted that much can change over a decade. By then, other party elders — not to mention Xi — are likely to be pushing forward proteges of their own.
Liu Liu, Wang Juan and Zhang Jie contributed to this report.