China’s political system has two problems. The first is its secrecy. The second problem, though, is very different: the simplified, hyperbolic caricature often presented in the West, where Chinese politics is usually depicted as a totally unpredictable fight for power. In this view, political events in China are simply the result of a power struggle between different factions and our lack of information makes any guesses all but useless.
But, while lacking transparency, Chinese politics is actually quite predictable, even more so than a democratic system is. We can be sure that a president will have over 15 years of political experience, that a 40-year-old will not join the Politburo Standing Committee, or that certain people, like the party secretary of Beijing or Shanghai, will be Politburo members. Over the past 20 years, China’s political system has accumulated an important number of precedents, some of which are strong, while others are new and yet untested.
Nonetheless, based on these precedents, we can attempt to create a theoretical framework in order to predict the evolution of the Chinese political system – in this case, the composition of the Politburo and its Standing Committee, after the 19th Party Congress. While some predictions might turn out to be off the mark, if the analytical framework is well designed, we have a yardstick that helps us better understand what the outcome means.
Take the fate of Wang Qishan. Speculation has become rampant that Wang, who is 69, might remain on the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), even though precedent says that he should retire. This speculation is based on the belief that Wang is Xi Jinping’s friend and right-hand man, implementing Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Thus, if Wang remains on the PSC, this is proof of Xi’s power.
But a careful analysis of the anti-corruption campaign proves that it isn’t so much Xi’s campaign, as it is the party’s campaign. So, let’s imagine that Wang stays on the PSC. It isn’t hard to predict the titles that will flood the English-language press, seeing this event as proof of Xi’s power and his desire to remain in charge after 2022. But this sign won’t mean much on its own. What if, along with Wang, Hu Chunhua (who is former President Hu Jintao’s ally) joins the PSC as vice president, while Chen Min’er, Xi’s ally, becomes vice premier? In such a scenario case, it would seem Hu Chunhua is the one being groomed as Xi’s successor, so Wang Qishan’s delayed retirement should be read not as a sign of Xi’s power, but as a party strategy to continue the anti-corruption campaign, whose success the party has attributed to Wang.
Without a coherent analytical framework, we cannot analyze the outcome of the 19th Party Congress and all commentary will be simple speculation. This is why we should look carefully at the past 20 years of Chinese politics and then build a predictive framework, which we can test on the occasion of the upcoming congress.