Based on an analysis of the patterns and precedents that could be observed in the formation of the Politburo Standing Committee over the past 20 years, the new PSC should have looked something like this: Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Han Zheng, Li Yuanchao, Chen Min’er, Li Zhanshu, Hu Chunhua. It seemed probable that Li Yuanchao, whose political fortunes didn’t look very good, might be replaced by Wang Yang.
But, when the new members of the PSC stepped on stage on October 25 (Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji, Han Zheng), it became clear that some old traditions were abandoned, even if three of the five new members were predictable (Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang and Han Zheng). The most obvious problem was the lack of successors. Odd-numbered congresses were seen as the moment when a successor was clearly indicated, through his promotion to the PSC. A successor should have been young enough to rule between 2022 and 2032, so he needed to be born after 1960. But all seven PSC members are born in the 1950s. Thus, the tradition of a five-year long transfer of power, one of the key processes of institutionalization, seems to have been abandoned. But the new PSC raises other important problems as well.
Traditionally, once somebody reached the Politburo, he either remained a member until retirement, or ascended to the PSC. This is history. Li Yuanchao, Liu Qibao (both associated with the Communist Youth League) and Zhang Chunxian are all under 66 years, but none has remained in the Politburo. Li Yuanchao, a two-term Politburo member, has been pensioned off. Liu and Zhang are still members of the Central Committee, but lost their power. What’s even more striking is that Liu, who was head of the Propaganda Department, stood a good chance of ascending to the PSC, to become the propaganda chief. This is what Liu Yunshan did in 2012 and this was the traditional working of things. However, the new propaganda chief is Wang Huning, who is only 62 years old and who hasn’t worked in China’s propaganda apparatus.
Wang Qishan’s absence from the new PSC is a sign that informal retirement norms are still respected. The 68 retirement age is alive. But age was far more complex in the process of PSC formation. Out of the pool of Politburo members under 68, the most likely to be promoted to the PSC were the politicians who were between 63 and 67. The reason is simple: somebody who is 62 will have another chance to be promoted five years later. This is how things have worked for over 25 years. This process reduced competition and made it possible for more Politburo members to ascend to the PSC for just one term. This is history as well.
Out of five new members, three (Zhao Leji, Wang Yang and Wang Huning) are 62 or younger. This means that they could serve another term in 2022. Ignoring the leaders of the generation, like Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang or Hu Jintao (who, by tradition, complete two terms), in 30 years between 1987 and 2017, out of 21 PSC members, only five served two terms. Three of them (Wu Bangguo, Jia Qinglin, Li Changchun) did so not because they took the seat of an older politician, but rather because there was nobody else in line to be promoted to the PSC in 2002.
If the three young members will serve two terms, not only did some older Politburo members, like Li Yuanchao or Liu Qibao, lose the chance of promotion, but many new Politburo members will also fail to reach the PSC in 2022. The old mechanism that prioritized age seniority in order to increase the number of Politburo members who reach the PSC is dead.
One precedent that seems to have survived is the promotion of the Shanghai party chief to the PSC. Han Zheng is the latest in a long line of Shanghai politicians who reach the PSC. This has been seen by some as a sign that Xi offered some space to Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai clique, just like Wang Yang’s inclusion looked like a nod to the Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League. But this doesn’t seem to be the case.