NEW HAVEN – China’s recent leadership transition was widely depicted as a triumph for conservative hard-liners and a setback for the cause of reform – a characterization that has deepened the gloominess that pervades Western perceptions of China. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang – the top two officials in China’s new governing council (the Standing Committee of the Politburo) – are both well educated, well traveled, and sophisticated thinkers who bring a wealth of experience to the many challenges that China faces. As so-called Fifth Generation leaders, they continue the steady progress in competence that has marked each of China’s leadership transitions since the emergence of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970’s.
While it is entirely premature to judge the style and direction that China’s new leaders will take, three early hints are worth noting. First, Xi’s assumption of power is more complete than was the case in earlier transitions. By immediately taking the reins of both the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Central Military Commission, he has a greater opportunity to put his personal stamp on policy than his predecessors had at the start of their administrations.
Yes, China governs by a consensus of the Standing Committee. But Xi is well positioned to drive the thinking of a now-leaner decision-making body (downsized from nine members to seven). Moreover, he has long favored a market-friendly, scientific approach to economic development, which will be vital to China’s future.