November 13, 2012 5:52 pm

China’s new leaders set to take stage

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Li Keqiang, Chinese vice-premier, attends the opening session of the 18th Communist Party Congress held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing©AP

At 11am in Beijing on Thursday, Xi Jinping will stride on to the stage of the Great Hall of the People, a cavernous building just to the west of the mausoleum which houses the embalmed corpse of Mao Zedong.

Closely behind Mr Xi will be Li Keqiang, and then five – or, perhaps, seven – other men. Ranked in the order of their stage entrance, they will form the Communist party of China’s Politburo Standing Committee for the next five years, the core of the leadership of the world’s second-biggest economy.

If all goes according to plan, Messrs Xi and Li will stay on for another five years, the twin helmsmen of China until 2022.

While the exact composition of the standing committee will not be known until Thursday, the fact that Messrs Xi and Li will be at its head has been widely expected since 2007 when they were anointed as China’s next president and premier, respectively.

Their overriding imperative since has been to avoid making any mistake that would disqualify them. They have succeeded.

Yet despite all this lead time, those outside Beijing’s innermost power circles know little about Messrs Xi and Li. The regime’s secrecy means that biographical details are scarce. The nature of the political system has prevented them from publicly expressing any policy preferences at variance with the official government line.

One popular view is that their personal beliefs simply may not matter much. China has travelled a long way from Mao’s day, when the fate of the nation hung on the whims of one man. Today, decisions are made by consensus. As chief of the Communist party, Xi’s role will be far more akin to board chairman than dictator.

But even in the most complex of organisations, personalities do matter. The education and work experiences of Messrs Xi and Li suggest that they are at least reasonably well qualified to address some of the biggest challenges facing China, from slowing economic growth to widespread pollution.

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The bigger concern is that the system itself needs fixing – that a rigid Leninist party structure has failed to keep pace with an increasingly mobile, ambitious, opinionated and informed Chinese population.

Will Messrs Xi and Li be the men to lead this change? That is highly doubtful. After studying the lessons of the Soviet Union, the Communist party has worked to ensure that, above all, it has not promoted Chinese Gorbachevs.

“The good thing about these people is that if you don’t like them, in five or 10 years they will be gone,” said Bo Zhiyue, a scholar of Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore. “But the problem is that 10 years will be too long if this group of people is incapable of doing anything.”

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