by Steve Tsang.

The 18th Party Congress scheduled to start today will determine who will be the leaders of China for the next decade.  But the people of China have no say in who will be selected, or even how they will be selected – not even the 80 million plus members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), even though it is their party congress.

The selection will be a closed door affair for the top echelons of the Party, where the nine members Politburo Standing Committee, 25-member Politburo and the 200-plus Central Committee, will be selected from the next level below to replenish those who will retire or are being forced to step down.

This is CCP-style “meritocracy” at work. The Party’s top echelons pick their own successors.

The Communist Party is certain that this is a superior system to democratic elections, where someone who has no prior experience in running a government department, a province or a state, or even a large corporation can be chosen chief executive of the country, as happened in the United States when President Barack Obama took office in 2008. In China, long apprenticeships within the Party are meant to groom and train the next generation of leaders.

Given the CCP’s confidence in the superiority of its model, why is it still so determined not to allow any degree of transparency?

Two reasons account for this. First and foremost is the reality that this is not a matter of China choosing its next generation of leaders but of the current generation of CCP leaders handing over to its next generation. The distinction here is not a matter of semantics. It reflects the basic fact that the CCP is not so much the ruling or governing political party in China – but that it owns the country.

Under the CCP, there is no scope for the country to hand power voluntarily to any other political party, institution or individual – ever.

The Party has only one mission: stay in power.

From the perspective of its top leadership, the People’s Republic of China is merely the trading name for the CCP partnership. As the collective owner of China and everything therein, including its human resources, the Party’s most basic concern is to ensure the next generation of leaders will be able to keep the company trading. Accountability only applies to the partners, who are the top echelons of the Party itself. Political accountability as understood in a democracy is irrelevant.

This being the case, why should the succession of the leadership be subjected to influence from anyone except the partners? Even for the 80-million Party members or aspirants to partnership, the matter is beyond them until they finally earned junior partnership as Central Committee members or senior partnership as members of the Politburo. The Politburo Standing Committee members are the managing partners.

The other reason is the Party’s awareness of the fragility of its legitimacy. The collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe two decades ago revealed that Leninism as a political system was not unchallengeable, despite its previous sterling record in delivering totalitarian control.

The changes unleashed by the post-Mao reforms meant that the CCP top leadership is now acutely aware of the vulnerability of the system, which is staffed by ruthless and highly efficient rent seekers organised into power blocs within the Party. Transparency will reveal the true nature of the system and damage its legitimacy in the 21st century.

The Party’s top leadership is acutely conscious of the scale of misconduct within its own ranks. The Bo Xilai saga and Premier Wen Jiabao’s reported family fortune, despite his avowed determination to tackle corruption, are just recent reminders of how they conduct themselves in public as well as in private life. The intensity in the jockeying for positions in the run up to the Party Congress has been such that the Party cannot afford to let the closed door politics of succession be seen in public.

Indeed, despite the Party’s vast capacity to manage information flow, it has not been able to keep the intensity and ruthlessness that mark infighting for succession completely confidential. Admittedly, this is because of deliberate leaks by those who have chosen to discredit and weaken their comrades competing for the top offices. But the need to present a united front in public remains paramount.

The Party knows the scale of public discontent, which is why the number of mass incidents of unrest per annum is now classified information. It is very conscious that a failure for the top leadership to reaffirm its will and capacity to take swift action against any challenge to the Party’s monopoly of power would be seen as a signal for dissidents to rise up and mount challenges.

The leadership at the top knows they must hang together or hang separately, and yet they cannot prevent various intra-Party power blocs from struggling against each other to advance factional interests. This leaves no scope for transparency in succession politics, and even less public involvement.

The Party Congress will be a carefully choreographed event. The cast for the new leadership is meant to be agreed by now, but surprises cannot be ruled out. However, every effort will be made to disguise last minute changes as reflecting divisions within the top leadership. China’s entire propaganda machine will work sleeplessly in the next week or two to ensure that.

This article firstly published in the National on 7th November 2012.

Steve Tsang is a professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies and the director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, UK.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors



  1. Having taught Chinese government and politics for the past five years I realise that it is paramount that we better understand the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party. This blog helps to shed light on some of the internal dynamics at play. The metaphor of the PRC being a trading name for the CCP partnership is very illuminating. I also think that the description of leading CCP cadres as partners or managing partners with more or less clearly defined remits helps us understand that there are two set of governing rules: one for the top leadership and another for the lower rungs of party officials. The way Professor Tsang is describing the Chinese Communist Party it seems as if the Standing Committee members are standing on a concrete ceiling. This concrete ceiling seems more or less impenetrable from below. I wonder, however, about the vertical ties between top CCP leaders and their factions on different levels of the party-state hierarchy. Research on the role of First in Command (yibashou) has shown that patrons of factions can have either have a narrow or broad support bases on different levels of the party-state hierarchy. In that sense even top leaders will have to look after the vested interests of their supporters operating both above and below the concrete ceiling. Professor Tsang is describing the latter as ‘ruthless and highly efficient rent seekers organised into power blocs’. I think that this is an accurate description of the nature of faction politics in the PR China. I would like to learn more about the exact nature of these factions and how they cut across horizontal and vertical ties both within and outside the Chinese Communist Party.

  2. The business metaphor is apt, but I think corporation rather than partnership is probably more precise. Partnerships are inherently unstable – different partners are frequently jockeying for dominance, whereas the CCP seems to have secured within its inner circle a large measure of consensus about who will do what and how transfers of responsibilities are done. What is even more scary is that the machinations of the party – the intrique, corruption, sex and even murder that can occur – has more than a passing similarity with some long-running American soap operas, such as The Bold and Beautiful! Powerful bosses of competiting companies scheme about, seduce and corrupt those around them. If only the Chinese people could find a new script writer – or be allowed to author the script themselves.

    1. Partnership is an association between two or more largerly independent entities with equal or similar power, and can be dissolved easily according to pre-determined agreements. Corporation is the union of various entities that act as a single incorporated entity. What are the “partners” in China? Private and public? Faction with faction? There is no such thing as a partnership between independent actors in China. As Prof Tsang writes, they must hang together or hang separately. I think the “corporation” metaphor is the most precise.

  3. Many thanks for the comments. I did start off thinking of a corporation as the metaphor but then settled on a partnership, like that of a major law firm. Such a partnership is not really any easier to break up than a corporation. It is much more personal, including both ownership and liabilities. The fact that CCP Partnership faces unlimited liabilities, as for partners in a partnership, is important, which partly explains why the top people in the Party almost all have ‘insurance’ overseas. It reinforces the sense of ‘hang together or hang separately’ but whether this is enough to enable the Party to act as one on all important issues is open to question/debate.

  4. What is particularly interesting to me is that it is the free markets corporation, quite unlike the “external” market economy with its self subsisting price mechanism, that has the CCP-like hierarchical structure in its pyramidal features. Such a structure allows decisions to be taken higher up the chain that force the obedient conduct of those lower down the chain. This takes place in an “inorganic” (command decision->obedience->or enforce) way compared to the “organic” price formation mechanism that works naturally and independently by economic parties maximizing the value of contracts between themselves. Similarly in a large law firm that is a partnership, this hierarchy exists in the form that at its simplest is entrepreneur-as-director, with founding partners, equity partners, senior partners, non-equity partners, associates, trainees, paralegals, and so on.

    However, in the market economy, the government takes the back seat in the economy. One difference between partnership and corporation is that the latter can be immortal, whereas a partnership will have an end date. I wonder whether it is apt to describe CCP lower levels as conglomerate (as set of hierarchies with “inorganic” features of a corporation and potential immortality, or even a web of corporations and partnerships) that is run by a senior partnership (the top of the pyramid – Standing Committee – and soluble – eg by purging) and that crucially together possess the power to control organic features of the economy (e.g. markets) provided that the information->dissemination->reflection->response mechanism through the Party’s infrastructure remains more efficient and can overpower any operator that runs independent of the conglomerate’s far reaching bothria, including market oriented mechanisms, if desired. In China not only is the government with corporate or partnership features, but it is deeply embedded.

    Corporate could imply entrenchment, but also efficiency and automatic taking of the best possible strategy, whereas partnership might implies more room for “inorganic” manouvre, like entrepreneurialism, charismatic leadership, yet also mortality.

  5. There are many existing problems in terms of selection of the leader of China, but I personally think that training to be able to run the country rather than compete for the position with significant money on election, so far is the netter way to benefit the China itself, as to the future situation that is unavoidably changed but not in the next ten years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *