How China Picks its Leaders

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One last thought on the just concluded Party Congress and the new faces on the all-important Standing Committee of the Politburo. Amidst all the discussion of names and factions, Princelings and the Youth League, it’s easy to lose sight of what the results mean for two critical areas: policy and competence. The policy differences between the growth-at-all-costs crowd and the slower-and- broader group have been discussed at length, including by yours truly. But I haven’t seen nearly as much focus on the simple issue of competence, in other words, how are the new leaders selected and are the new guys going to make the right decisions when they get their chance to run China. This is after all, a pretty important issue. It’s hard to think of China being where it is today without the skills of former premier Zhu Rongji, for example. Unfortunately though the system, such as it is, the Party uses to select new leaders is not designed to reward good management. Some people believe that it would be more accurate to say that instead of rewarding competence it punishes mistakes, thus rewarding those (like Hu Jintao, for example) who have been conspicuous by their blandness and lack of public screw ups. I don’t think even that is true though. Out of the four new members of the Standing Committee, Xi Jinping seems to be closest to that profile. He spent much of his career (17 years) in Fujian province but doesn’t seem to have left his mark there, other than earning a reputation for being pro-business. His presumed rival for the top job, Li Keqiang wasn’t quite as fortunate. He served as governor of Henan province from 1999 to 2003, catching the tail end of the horrific tainted blood/AIDs crisis that saw tens of thousands of blood donors infected through official venality and incompetence. Li didn’t deal with that problem, or do much to help the victims, and the whole issue is still a very sore point for local provincial officials today (see this about AIDs activist Gao Yaojie). But that didn’t harm Li’s career, apparently. Nor did the fact that three huge fires that left hundreds dead occurred on his watch. The puzzling lack of accountability is even more stark in the case of the other two new faces on the standing committee, Zhou Yaokang and He Guoqiang. As is usual for candidates for high office, Zhou, who is not a popular figure, was investigated ahead of his elevation and reportedly received a strongly negative rating. As to He Guoqiang, he has been dogged by persistent rumors of corruption and was reportedly forced to do a self-criticism at a 2003 Politburo meeting. But all three men, despite their problems had one thing in common: a strong backer. Zhou is married to former Party Secretary Jiang Zemin’s niece and He also had Jiang’s backing. Li Keqiang of course has know Hu Jintao for several decades and has long been known to be his favored successor.

In the past, the new leadership was personally selected by the strongman of the day. Deng Xiaoping picked out Hu Jintao and designated him as successor to Jiang Zemin, something Jiang wasn’t very happy about. Obviously that system was open to abuse but at least the competence of the candidates was a major factor in the decision making. But now in the age of diminished authority and consensus decisions, factions are struggling to get their own candidates into the top jobs, regardless of whether they are suitable or not. Considering the scope of the challenges China faces, that’s a little scary, to put it mildly.

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