China’s Next Leaders Likely to Continue Slow Reform

China’s leadership transition is unlikely to herald radical policy changes.

Two days after Americans elect their next president in November, the Chinese Communist Party Congress convenes in Beijing to appoint the members of its Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s highest decisionmaking body.

Although it isn’t certain yet whether the committee will again include nine or seven members instead, the two top slots are reserved for incumbent vice president Xi Jinping and his deputy Li Keqiang. Both already sit on the Standing Committee and are slated to succeed President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao respectively.

Xi will also likely be named party general secretary and, if previous successions are any indication, take over as chairman of the Central Military Commission from Hu Jintao if he relinquishes the post, probably next year.

Xi is a protégé of former president Jiang Zemin’s and considered an advocate of economic reform although he has also shown support for state-owned enterprises.

Li may be more ideological on the economic front. He stresses the need for affordable health case and housing and was involved in the intellectual ferment of the Deng Xiaoping era which ended in the bloody suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. As successor to reformist premier Wen Jiabao, he could lead the struggle for legal reform and find an ally in Li Yuanchao. As party boss in Jiangsu Province, Li curbed corruption, improved party democracy and relations with the public as well as the status of migrant workers.

The absence of Guangdong Province party chief Wang Yang from the latest list of contenders suggests that the next leadership team won’t herald a radical liberalization in either the economic or the political sphere, however.

Wang experimented with freer markets and local democracy in Guangdong and has been critical of state control. “We must get rid of the misconception that the people’s happiness is a gift from the party and government,” he said in May.

Even at the height of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, Wang made frequent calls to upgrade his province’s industrial base but gained particular fame for the way in which he defused civil unrest in the fishing village of Wukan which ended in a breakthrough for grassroots civil rights activism.

That may have been a step too far for China’s leadership. The likely appointment of propaganda minister Liu Yunshan, who has kept the national media on a tight leash and seeks further control of the Internet, doesn’t bode well for those who hope for increased transparency in China.

Wang Qishan probably won’t mark a break from the Hu-Wen Administration as vice premier in charge of economic policy. He supports liberalization of the country’s financial system as well as tax reform and is expected to encourage more foreign investment and trade.

The same is true for Zhang Gaoli, one of the most unassuming members of the Politburo but like Qishan, a Jiang protégé.

The two could clash with Zhang Dejiang. Although considered part of the Jiang faction, Zhang is a staunch defender of China’s state-owned enterprises. He studied in North Korea and in 2001 wrote an article opposing party membership for businessmen.

On balance, the new leadership team doesn’t seem likely to depart from the gradual liberalization of China’s economy as it has occurred in previous years. Nor should huge changes in the political sphere be expected. The fact that November’s changes to the Standing Committee appear to have the blessing of former president Jiang Zemin suggests that there is broad consensus at least among the top echelons of the party that the present course of slow reform should be continued.

Membership of the new committee is expected to be finalized by the outgoing Central Committee at its seventh and last plenum on November 1, a week before the party congress will ratify the changes.