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Congressional Research Service, "A Guide to China's Upcoming Leadership Transitions," October 16, 2012

This CRS report was written by Susan V. Lawrence, specialist in Asian Affairs.
October 16, 2012

China, the only Communist Party-led nation in the G-20 grouping of major economies, is in the midst of a sweeping set of political transitions that began in 2011 and could conclude as late as 2014. The most important of the transitions is to take place at the next of the Party’s quinquennial national congresses, the 18th Congress, scheduled to open on November 8, 2012, and at a Central Committee meeting immediately afterwards, at which the Party is to appoint a new General Secretary and a new collective leadership. Four months later, at the 12th National People’s Congress in March 2013, China is to appoint new State and National People’s Congress leaders. The Party’s new General Secretary, assumed to be Xi Jinping, is expected to be named State President, while another member of the collective Party leadership, current Vice Premier Li Keqiang, is expected to be named State Premier. So far unclear is whether China’s current top leader, Hu Jintao, will give up his post overseeing China’s military at the 18th Party Congress, or whether he will retain the military job for two more years, until 2014.

The U.S. Congress has a strong interest in China’s upcoming leadership transitions. China is the United States’ second largest trading partner and largest supplier of imports, as well as being the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt. Both countries are major players in global efforts to tackle the European debt crisis, rein in the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, and manage instability in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring. China’s military modernization is now a factor in U.S. strategic planning. Who the new Chinese leaders are, the inter-personal dynamics among them, and their policy inclinations will have significant implications for U.S.-China relations and for the China’s role in the Asia-Pacific region and the world. Congress also has an interest in understanding China’s upcoming political transitions as a means of evaluating China’s progress, or lack thereof, toward giving its citizens a meaningful role in the development of their political system.  

This report is intended to provide Congress with a guide to the transitions, covering their distinct features and specific issues of interest, including the Party’s next steps in the ongoing scandal involving Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing Party Secretary and Politburo member who fell from grace after his wife was implicated in the murder of a British businessman. This report also previews some of the challenges facing China’s new leaders, starting with the requirement to consolidate their power. Xi Jinping would be the first top leader in the post-Mao Zedong era not personally selected by Deng Xiaoping, the dominant political figure of the era. He and his colleagues will also have to contend with not one but two retired Communist Party General Secretaries jockeying for influence behind the scenes, and with an irreverent micro-blogging Chinese public primed to pounce on their mistakes. Policy challenges for China’s new leaders include determining the appropriate role for the state sector in an ambitious shift in economic growth models, re-conceiving China’s foreign policy, and deciding how to respond to growing public expectations for political reform. The United States has a strong interest in how China’s new leaders choose to approach all those challenges.

Subsequent reports will cover the outcomes of the 18th Party Congress and the 12th National People’s Congress. For a detailed discussion of the Chinese political system, please see CRS Report R41007, Understanding China’s Political System, by Susan V. Lawrence and Michael F. Martin. For background information about Xi Jinping, the man expected to be named General Secretary of the Communist Party at the 18th Party Congress in November, see CRS Report R42342, China’s Vice President Xi Jinping Visits the United States: What Is at Stake?, by Susan V. Lawrence.

Click here for a listing of reports released by the Congressional Research Service.