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Obama, meet your new rivals

Here's who's likely to be pulling the levers that make China go.

HONG KONG and TAIPEI — Obama's crowds are still roaring, but China isn't going to wait for them to quiet down.

The world's other major power transition takes place Thursday, when China's Politburo meets to announce its new decision makers. The selection process has been largely shrouded in secrecy, but many are speculating as to who will be among the Politburo's new members.

Below are GlobalPost's predictions. 

Xi Jinping will take the mantle from President Hu Jintao, and Li Keqiang is set to take Wen Jiabao's seat as premier.

Other highlights include: President Jiang Zemin, who led China following the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989, is likely to remain influential. And Liu Yandong will probably be the first female member. 

With a slowing economy and major scandals plaguing the Party, it will be up to China's new leadership to maintain stability in the face of unprecedented challenges.

Xi Jinping

Barring some radical change of fortune, this portly, 59-year-old princeling will be China’s president — and the country’s most recognizable face — for at least the next five years.

So who is Xi? Everyone has been puzzling over that since the signs have been pointing toward his ascent. Here’s what we know: Xi, like many rising Communist Party elites, made the circuit from low-level regional posts to higher and more prestigious government positions closer to the centers of power in Beijing and Shanghai. He was the party boss in wealthy Zhejiang province from 2002 to 2007, and became the Shanghai chief in 2007. For the last five years has been the vice president of China. For some time, it has been apparent that he is being groomed for the top.

Apart from his resume, however, Xi is a bit of a cipher. China watchers describe him as bland, confident, and a bit rustic — though with a huge rolodex of supporters in the military, provinces, and state-owned enterprises, which are generally seen as more conservative institutions. Personally, he is said to like basketball and war movies, and is married to a popular Chinese folk singer who is also a major general in the People’s Liberation Army. His daughter studies under an assumed name at Harvard.

In terms of supporters, Xi is a princeling — the son of an early Communist Party leader — and a protégé of Jiang Zemin, a former president who remains influential behind the scenes.

Xi is often described, somewhat hopefully, as a reformer. The same was also said about outgoing president Hu Jintao, who oversaw a decade of stalled reforms and increasing state control of the economy. Cheng Li, a China analyst at the Brookings Institution, suggests that Xi is hardly a Mikhail Gorbachev. “Xi’s views concerning China’s political reforms appear to be remarkably conservative, seemingly in line with old-fashioned Marxist doctrines,” he writes.

Li Keqiang

Widely seen as the smartest — or at least the best-educated — of the next generation of leaders, Li Keqiang is tipped to take over as premier after Wen Jiabao.

Li’s background is fairly modest. He grew up a mid-level official’s son in Anhui province, a relatively poor and picturesque region. His wife, Cheng Hong, is an English professor, and an admirer of American writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. (She twice visited his cabin at Walden Pond, outside Boston.)

In terms of allies, Li’s main backer is said to be president Hu Jintao, whom he met in the Communist Youth League of China — a sort of Eagle Scouts of the political class. Under Hu, the League has become a major source of political appointees.

Li may lack some of the steely decisiveness of earlier premiers, which could hobble his ability to tackle corporate interests. Nevertheless, his priorities tilt populist: Cheng Li of Brookings says Li’s “hot-button policy issues will include increasing employment, offering more affordable housing, providing basic health care, balancing regional development, and promoting innovation in clean energy technology.”

Wen Jiabao

Dubbed "the people's premier," outgoing Wen Jiabao has won praise for his frank talk of civil reforms and high-profile visits to disaster sites. Another technocrat, the 70-year-old native of northern port town Tianjin, had built a strong network throughout his career on the back of a reputation for being a solid administrator.

Wen was regarded as the driving force behind China’s economic policy, and was credited with steering the country through the global economic crisis relatively unscathed.

A protege of former General Secretary Hu Yaobang, who was later purged, Wen was transferred to Beijing and the General Office of the CCP Central Committee in the mid ‘80s, before winning promotion to the top job in 1986. He has served as vice premier of the State Council and has been on the Standing Committee since 2002.

Although generally popular with the Chinese public and foreign media for his comparative willingness to give free press conferences, insiders say Wen’s influence within the party has been on the wane for some time. A strong supporter of outgoing leader Hu Jintao, Wen’s reputation took a battering recently after The New York Times reported that his family controlled assets of at least $2.7 billion. The Times also reported that Wen’s 90-year-old mother held about $120 million worth of shares in an insurance company. The New York Times website was temporarily shut down in China and Wen, through his lawyers, denied the validity of the report.

“Wen is often referred to as the best actor in the country. He says the right things at the right time, but people don’t really take him serious when he talks about reforms,” said Brookings' Chang. “You could see how sensitive the NY Times article was. It certainly hurt Wen’s reputation among the power holders.

He is on his way out. Over the past few years his power has waned, and I don’t think he’ll have much influence in the years to come.”

Hu Jintao

Hu Jintao has been Chinese president since 2003, and is also chairman of the Central Military Commission and General Secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Unlike many in the upper ranks of leadership, Hu had a comparatively disadvantaged upbringing. His father was a small tea trader in Anhui province who was later purged during the Cultural Revolution, and his mother died when he was 7.

Another technocrat, Hu came up through the ranks of the Communist Youth League. Handpicked by China’s last absolute ruler, Deng Xiaoping, Hu has a snippy and often contentious relationship with predecessor Jiang Zemin. As such, their respective cliques are often at odds with one another.

Hu has held top posts in Gansu and Guizhou and was the party’s top official in restive Tibet, where he put down an uprising and declared martial law. A member of the Politburo’s Standing Committee since 1992, Hu’s time in charge of the world’s second largest economy has produced mixed results.

The second youngest general secretary in party history, his tenure began with talk of liberalization and reforms. However, he eventually reintroduced some economic controls and has been called a conservative consensus builder and champion of economic growth at all costs by some analysts, who expected him to do more about inequality and endemic corruption. Said to possess a low-key and reserved leadership style, Hu has gotten flak from senior party officials for presiding over “a lost decade.”

“He nominated [presumed incoming premier] Li to be the next leader at the last party congress in 2007, but most party heavyweights disagreed with him. That’s how Xi Jinping emerged. Xi derailed Hu’s succession plan. They are now nominal rivals, but it also shows Hu’s influence was limited or constrained,” said Brookings' Chang. “I’m skeptical that he will stay on as chairman of the military commission because his authority has been eroded and damaged. He won’t be able to stay on for two more years as Jiang had.”

Jiang Zemin

The 86-year-old Jiang Zemin, who led China from pariah state after the Tiananmen Protest killings in 1989 to the world’s second most powerful nation when he handed leadership to Hu Jintao in 2002, was seen so rarely in public that rumors spread about his poor health. A Hong Kong TV station erroneously reported his death last year.

However, Jiang, who is still believed to wield considerable influence inside the Communist Party through his Shanghai Clique, has made a few recent high-profile public appearances. This has prompted speculation about whether the former engineer, Shanghai party boss and one-time Soviet autoworker wants to let it be known that he still has clout and a real say in the shape of the new leadership team.

Jiang, a native of Jiangsu province, is another leader handpicked by Deng Xiaoping and owed his dramatic rise to a purge of more liberal leaders following the pro-democracy Tiananmen demonstrations.

The first general secretary in party history to retire from the post, Jiang isn’t regarded as an innovative statesman or ideological heavyweight. What he is known for is his ability to maintain social stability, consensus building and being a political survivor.

Jiang is said to have a much warmer relationship with incoming presumed leader Xi Jinping than with outgoing Hu Jintao, but his continuing support of now disgraced maverick Bo Xilai has hurt him with party centrists. However, he still retains influence within the military and powerful state-owned enterprises.

“Jiang’s power has been damaged over time and further damaged by his support of Bo Xilai. Deng was the last paramount leader, who was able to nominate Jiang then Hu. But Deng’s dead now and Jiang and Hu don’t carry that same weight. Their political influence is much more diluted,” said Chang from Brookings Institution.

“Jiang mobilized his Shanghai faction to vote for Xi because Hu purged his guy in Shanghai. However, because of the Bo situation, Xi might have to eventually draw some distance from Jiang.”

Liu Yandong

The most obvious fact about Liu is arguably the most important: she’s a woman. If elevated to China’s Standing Committee, she would be the first woman ever to enter Communist China’s innermost ring of power.

Her presence would mark a departure from the stiff, mirthless, pompadoured technocrats who now rule China. Liberal, hardworking and charismatic, Liu has staged photo-ops with athletes and folk heroes, and called for cultural exchanges between China and the outside world. She is said to speak good English, and have a hobby for photography.

Both a princeling and a member of Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League Cabal — not to mention a protégé of Jiang Zemin — Liu has friends and allies to spare. Her husband, Yang Yuanxin, is also a princeling.

But her chances of getting tapped are still iffy. Something of an outside candidate, age could stand in the way of 66-year-old Liu if the Party decides to favor younger, so-called “fifth generation” politicos.

Li Yuanchao

Li Yuancho’s name has been shortlisted for a Politburo Standing Committee post. On the surface Li’s advance seems palatable to all of the top leadership’s differing factions.

A princeling and former vice mayor of Shanghai, 62-year-old Li moved through the ranks of Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League and is said to be close both Hu and outgoing premier Wen Jiabao. He’s also held posts as vice minister of culture and top party spots in Jiangsu province before his current post as head of the Organization Department of the Communist Party, a powerful networking and patronage position responsible for the promotion and demotion of party officials.

Li also has the advantage of being close to incoming leader Xi as well as being a part of Hu’s Tuanpai faction.

“Li is very close to Xi, and will help him to reshuffle the hierarchy and put the right people in the right spots. He will be extremely important to Xi’s tenure, and is acceptable to many different factions which makes it easier for him. I think he will be in this time,” said Chang from the Brookings Institution.

Thought of as a proponent of interparty democratic reforms, observers say Li is also a staunch supporter of tougher measures in dealing with corrupt officials, a chief concern of top leadership worried about public dissatisfaction with endemic cronyism in the world’s second largest economy.

The native of Jiangsu province is former pupil of leadership laboratory, the Central Party School, and like an increasing number of the ruling elite and their scions, has spent time studying public administration at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Hu Chunhua

At 49, Hu is the youngest contender for a top Party seat. His career has also been one of the most meteoric. He is the current party boss of Inner Mongolia, and previously spent 23 years cutting his teeth in the volatile province of Tibet.

Already discussed as a possible president after Xi Jinping, Hu is often referred to a rising star of the “sixth generation.”

Hu was raised humbly with six siblings in a poor farming community. After earning a place at ultra-competitive Peking University, where he studied Chinese literature, he became a student leader. From there, he went to Tibet, where he worked under Hu Jintao, forging one of his most crucial political connections.

He is generally seen as more open to capitalist ideas and anti-corruption reforms than the older generation. If nothing else, Hu is distinguished from other politicos by foregoing the black hair dye and heavy mousse universally favored by Chinese officials.

Experts infer from his background that Hu would likely favor a populist, anti-income inequality agenda. Cheng Li of Brookings pinpoints “poverty alleviation, social welfare, and the allocation of more financial and human resources to less-developed regions” as particular issues of interest.

Shanghaiist sums him up nicely: “Hu is basically a Chinese Abraham Lincoln.” 

Wang Qishan

Wang seems to tick all the right factional and professional boxes.

The son of a former Politburo Standing Committee member and vice premier, Wang was born in the northeaster port town of Tianjin in 1948. He was later sent to work at a Shaanxi Province People's Commune during the height of the Cultural Revolution.

Wang, 65, has a degree in history from Northwest University in the ancient Chinese capital city of Xi'an, and counts Jiang Zemin among his strongest supporters. A deputy premier in charge of finance and trade, Wang, not only has solid finance chops — former US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is a close friend — but has also served as mayor of Beijing, and was instrumental in putting together the city’s winning bid for 2008 Olympic Games.

He’s won plaudits for his candor following a government cover up of the SARS outbreak in 2003, his handling of the biggest debt restructuring in the Middle Kingdom’s history and for being comparatively open to media after a PBS interview last year.

“In the years to come, Wang will be very important when it comes to political reform. He’s a frontrunner, who will be made first Vice Premier after Li. He’s already held important economic and trade posts, is a princeling and has some strong ties with the US. I think he will be important in the decision making processes going forward,” said Chang.

Wang Yang

A favorite of the Western press, Wang Yang is typically upheld as the poster-boy of liberal reformers in China. He is said to favor intra-party democracy and village elections.

As party boss in the southern manufacturing hub of Guangdong province, Wang made it his mission to shift away from export-oriented, high-pollution industries, and restructure the economy toward high-tech fields. Instead of churning out toys and low-grade tchotchkes, Guangdong factories shifted to making trains, computers, and TV screens. Wang is also praised for his soft hand in dealing with a popular uprising in Wukan, and for touting a “happiness index” to replace the Party's obsession with GDP.

Wang Yang also belongs to the Hu Jintao/Communist Youth League camp, though Deng Xiaoping — the architect of contemporary China — has lately been credited with discovering Wang in 1992, calling him an “exceptional talent."

What’s not to like about Wang Yang? For starters, China hands say there’s more style than substance to Wang’s liberalism — see the recent crackdown on Guangdong’s freewheeling press. And perhaps more importantly, it looks like Wang Yang might be on the outs: Reuters has said that some insiders claim Wang's name is off the Standing Committee list.

Liu Yunshan

Liu Yunshan has a job that makes him both hugely important and very hard to love: boss of the world’s largest propaganda and censorship operation.

As Central Committee Propaganda chief, 65-year-old Liu oversees the vast army of censors that police the internet for forbidden words, discussions, and ideas. His tenure has seen the initiation of an $8 billion campaign to win hearts and minds overseas, with the opening of a new Washington, DC bureau for China Central Television, and a purchase of billboard in Times Square for Xinhua news agency.

Liu is hardly known as a softie when it comes to freedom of the press. Several editors of crusading Chinese newspapers were sacked this year for probing sensitive subjects. And in an issue of Party Building magazine this year, Liu urged greater vigilance against “ the hostile forces in the world” that have “intensified their infiltration into our ideology by constantly changing their tactics.”

Of course, the challenge to censors has ballooned, as smart phones and Twitter-like services have made it possible for ordinary Chinese to vent against their leaders as never before.

Perhaps surprisingly, Liu is a close ally of Hu Jintao, and another veteran of the Communist Youth League. His odds of joining the Standing Committee are seen as fairly strong.

Yu Zhengsheng

Yu Zhengsheng is the CPC party chief in Shanghai, a position that affords him nominal control of China's largest city and a proven breeding ground for China’s top leadership. Both Jiang Zemin and presumed leader Xi Jinping held the post previously.

Yu’s background is also the most colourful of this year’s crop of candidates.

He was born into an aristocratic family in coastal Zhejiang province, which had already produced a number of senior officials in the late Qing dynasty and the ill-fated Kuomintang regime that followed. His father was at one point married to Mao Zedong's third wife before being named as the first mayor of Tianjin following the Chinese Revolution.

But it was another revolution, this time the Cultural, which hit his family the hardest. Yu has said at least six family members died during the upheaval, including a younger sister, who committed suicide. His mother, a revolutionary vanguard, reportedly became schizophrenic during her seven years in jail.

Despite the turmoil, Yu, who has close ties to Jiang Zemin and the family of former leader Deng Xiaoping, was still being groomed for a top leadership post, until his intelligence officer brother defected to the United States in 1985, blowing the lid off a Chinese mole working in the CIA in the process.

In purge-happy Chinese politics that would normally be enough to clip his wings. However, Yu, 67, was reportedly spared by an intervention by Deng. The former missile engineer has since held posts as mayor of Qingdao, party chief of Hubei, minister of construction and was appointed to the Politburo in 2002.

Yu is thought of as reformer, who wants to push the private sector, urban development, legal development and social reforms. Although his age may work against him, Yu is considered a strong candidate for the steering committee.

“He has been around in many different positions since the 80s. He’s stayed on and showed his loyalty. For the party, the party secretary in Shanghai is a crucial position. His close relationship with Deng’s family doesn’t hurt either,” said Chang.

 Zhang Dejiang

A princeling with close ties to both former paramount leader Jiang Zemin and the Communist Youth League, Zhang was until recently a vice premier of China's State Council. But that was before disgraced party maverick Bo Xilai's dramatic fall from grace sent shockwaves through the halls of power and unveiled deep fissures within the ruling elite. Zhang has since been sent to fill Bo’s spot as chief of industrial megalopolis Chongqing.

Zhang, 65, hails from coastal north-eastern Liaoning province. Liaoning borders North Korea to the east and is likely a reason why Zhang, after returning from a countryside work placement in his 20s, first worked in the country propaganda department before studying Korean at Yanbian University.

After heading the Communist Youth League branch in Liaoning, Zhang headed east to North Korea, where he studied economics at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang.

During the '80s, Zhang bounced around from senior party positions before being named vice minister of civil affairs. He won a seat on the Politburo of the CPC Central Committee and become secretary of the Guangdong Provincial Committee in 2002.

Zhang is said to be a staunch supporter of powerful monopolistic state-owned enterprises, and as such, favors economic protectionism and limited regulatory reforms.

Some observers believe his secondment to Chongqing so close to this month’s congress has scuttled his chances of making the Politburo Standing Committee. Others disagree.

“He could also make it. He was high up in the Youth League faction and the need for balance among the factions gives him a good shot. He has close ties to powerful state-owned enterprises and his replacement of Bo means they trust him to clean house (in Chongqing),” said Chang.

Zhang Gaoli

A bit of a black box even compared to other low-profile leaders, 65-year-old Zhang has served as party boss in several of China’s wealthiest and most advanced regions: Shenzen, Shandong, and Tianjin. He has the reputation of being pro-market economics maven with a knack for enriching coastal areas.

As for his backers, Zhang is often tied to Jiang Zemin, particularly after he made Shenzhen a laboratory for Jiang’s marquee policy, the “Three Represents.” As vice governor of Guangdong province, he also is said to have regularly attended on the father of Xi Jinping.

Although he’s not known for embracing the limelight, Zhang did open up a bit earlier this year in an online interview with the public, perhaps in a bid to polish up his image and improve his chances at the Standing Committee. “You are performing only when the public says you are doing well,” he said.

Photo illustrations by Kyle Kim.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/china/121106/chinese-politburo-power-transition-xi-jinping