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China's Leadership Structure and Transition
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From: The US-China Business Council

With attention focused on China’s leadership transition due to an unusually large number of positions up for grabs and Bo Xilai’s dismissal from his communist party posts, the US-China Business Council recently released a report outlining China’s leadership structure and transition.

China’s 18th Party Congress, scheduled for this fall, marks the beginning of a large turnover of China’s top government and communist party leadership.

Two remain

Roughly 70 percent of members of China’s top political institutions are expected to step down by the time the transition ends in early 2013, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, who are expected to take over as president and premier, respectively, are the only two members of the Politburo Standing Committee who are expected to retain their seats.

Before he was removed from his positions as Chongqing party secretary and a member of the Politburo, Bo had garnered significant attention in China for anticorruption efforts and his “Chongqing model” that supported state dominance in the economy. Reuters reports that PRC officials are now calling Bo’s purge “an isolated case” and stressing unity as they prepare for next year’s leadership transition.

Leadership structure

China’s political system is divided into three major institutions: the government, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the military. The government and military are subordinate to the CCP, which sets the national policy agenda. The CCP is organized into three major bodies: the Central Committee, the Politburo, and the Politburo Standing Committee. Each organization is respectively smaller in size and holds increasingly more political power, with the Politburo Standing Committee holding the most authority (see table).

Leadership Organizations within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)

Central Committee


Politburo Standing Committee

350 members 25 members Currently comprises nine members (though number is not fixed)
Convenes once per year at "plenary sessions" during which the CCP announces policy changes Officially recognized as the chief political decision-making body in China Regarded as the most elite group of political leaders within the CCP structure
Members are selected every five years from a pool of more than 2,000 delegate to the party congress Members are selected from the Central Committee Members are selected from the Politburo
  Members are announced at the party congress every five years Members are announced at the party congress every five years
Coming changes

18th Party Congress and CCP leadership changes

Leadership transitions in China are not a uniform process, and the timing of when positions are vacated and filled depends on the institution, level, and function. In the past, appointments to senior-level party positions within the Central Committee, Politburo, and the Politburo Standing Committee have been made at the party congress in the fall. The party may appoint government positions within the State Council, such as those of minister or vice minister, at the NPC in March 2013. But it’s also possible that these positions will be filled after the autumn party congress or after the spring NPC meeting.

Many national- and provincial-level party leaders will be replaced due to reaching — or approaching — the targeted retirement age of 68. This includes at least 14 of the 25 member Politburo and an estimated 60 percent of the 370 full-time and alternate members of the Central Committee.

State Council and central government positions

Based on past practice, key leadership positions of the State Council and its offices will also undergo change because of retirement or promotion. These posts could include the premier, vice premiers, state councilors, and many of the heads of the State Council’s 27 ministries and commissions. Though exceptions are made, government guidelines state that ministers are supposed to retire at the age of 65, while officials at lower levels should retire at age 60.

Local- and provincial-level leadership

Many of the party secretaries and governors of China’s 31 provinces, autonomous regions, and centrally administered municipalities are also likely to be replaced.

According to the CCP Organization Department, all four levels of party leadership below the national level (provincial, municipal, county, and town) will complete major turnovers of their party positions by June 2012. This process entails selecting officials from a pool of 30 million party cadres and appointing them to positions in China’s 31 provinces, 361 cities, 2,811 counties, and 34,171 townships.

Appointments of most positions such as municipal party secretaries and CCP commissioners within all government bureaus at all four sub-national levels of government should be finalized by June 2012. This precedes the party congress to allow recently appointed officials to “elect” senior posts. Current provincial-level party secretaries may be elevated to more senior party positions at the party congress. This means there will likely be additional changes to provincial party secretaries following both the party congress in the fall and the subsequent appointments to state bureaucratic positions in the spring of 2013.

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