Are Politburo Hopefuls Ready to Lead?

With the Bo Xilai scandal still hanging over China’s upcoming leadership transition, and with Beijing’s top leaders packing up their swimsuits for their summer retreat in Beidaihe, The Diplomat’s Minxin Pei questions whether the incoming generation of Politburo members are up to the challenges posed by a China at a social, political and economic crossroads:

In the eyes of most Western elites, businessmen and politicians alike, Chinese leaders are practically synonymous with “smart, capable, dynamic, decisive, and forward looking.” Many of them are impressed, usually after relatively brief meetings, by the perceived sophistication, intelligence, and leadership skills of Chinese officials.

The truth is, of course, quite different. Compared with their revolutionary predecessors, the current generation of leaders is obviously better educated, younger, culturally more sophisticated. But does the current system in China actually promote the most capable leaders to the top? Can such leaders actually govern effectively once installed?

Evidence based on academic research and press reports in China suggest that personal patronage and factional strength, not demonstrated achievements, are far more important in the selection of top leaders than objective factors such as record of administration. For example, Victor Shih of the University of California in San Diego and his collaborators combed through extensive personnel data and local economic growth rates to find whether promotion of officials in China actually depends on their demonstrated ability to deliver economic growth. Their conclusion is that political patronage (specifically ties with powerful leaders), not growth rates, determines promotion.

This finding equally applies to the selection of top leaders. With a small number of exceptions, most candidates slated for top positions in the PSC and the Politburo don’t have records that inspire confidence and admiration. Other than the most strict and objective limit – their age – the only factor that influences their chances of being elevated to the top is whether they have powerful backers.