“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.