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Players to Watch in China

Xi Jinping: The former party secretary for Shanghai succeeded Hu Jintao as leader of the CCP in November 2012, and as president of China in March 2013. The son of a former vice prime minister, Xi has experienced both the affluence of the politically connected and, owing to his father’s fall from grace and relocation to a remote village in the 1970s, the hardship of the rural poor. He has spent much of his life in China’s coastal urban centers, and as such tends to be outward-looking in his approach to politics, and is expected to grant high priority to China’s international standing during his presidency. He enjoys strong support among the business community in Shanghai and is generally viewed as a pragmatist on the issue of economic liberalization. However, as is typical of mainstream thinking within the CCP, Xi is staunchly opposed to any relaxation of the party’s political control.
Li Keqiang: The former party secretary for Liaoning, Li replaced Wen Jiabao as prime minister in March 2013. A product of the rural west and a man of humble origins, Li places highest priority on boosting the living standards of a rural population that has not enjoyed the benefits of the market reforms implemented since the 1980s. Li’s image as the champion of the rural poor in China highlights the potential for policy disagreements with the more urban-focused and outward-directed President Xi. At the very least, his presence in the upper echelons of the political structure will ensure that the interests of the rural masses are represented in discussions of policy strategy.
Politburo Standing Committee: Decision-making power in the post-Deng era has become less concentrated, such that the president is appropriately viewed as the first among equals, and policy decisions are made on the basis of negotiation and consensus within the PSC, the CCP’s top executive body. The reduction of the PSC from nine members to seven (including Xi and Li) will facilitate the process of policy formulation, especially given the apparent lack of intense personal or ideological animosities among the members of the slimmed-down body. The predominance of conservative-leaning politicians from prominent party families points to the continuation of a cautious approach to financial and economic reform, while the relative cohesion of China’s new collective leadership promises continuing political stability at the top of the power structure.
Liberals: The liberal faction of the CCP favors both economic and political reform, with the most “radical” members advocating the eventual establishment of a constitutional, multiparty democratic system. Although such radicals have virtually no influence within the upper reaches of the CCP, they are well represented among student groups and in potentially influential intellectual circles. Prime Minister Li is backed by the CCP’s liberal faction, but the influence of the liberals will be limited by the exclusion of Wang Yang from the slimmed-down PSC. Wang is the top leader of the CCP in Guangdong Province, and has expressed support for limited political reform as a means of easing the tensions created by growing income disparities. His failure to win a spot on the PSC suggests that any change of policy direction prompted by political or social instability will be in the direction of less aggressive reform, at least in the near term. A liberal who did survive the vetting process for determining the composition of the current PSC is Wang Qishan, a vocal pro-market advocate. However, he has been shifted from vice prime minister for economic affairs to the leadership of the CCP’s internal anti-graft commission, and occupies the second lowest-ranked position in the PSC.
Conservatives: The conservative faction of the CCP has from the start expressed skepticism about the wisdom of market-based economic reforms, and sees the increasingly overt signs of widespread social discontent and the problem of endemic corruption as a direct outgrowth of the loosening of state control over the economy. Conservatives generally favor a halting of the reform process, while the faction’s hard-liners advocate rolling back some reforms already in place. A rising star among the conservatives, Bo Xilai, appeared to be on track for promotion to the PSC, but his legal troubles contributed to a stunning fall from grace in 2012. Bo’s absence from the PSC made it politically unpractical to promote his liberal counterpart, Wang Yang, to the top body, and it is quite possible that the PSC was reduced from nine members to seven to create a justification for snubbing Wang.
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