This year marks the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic, and the ruling party is no longer led by one strongman, like Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping. Instead, the Politburo and its Standing Committee, China’s most powerful body, are run by two informal coalitions that compete against each other for power, influence, and control over policy. Competition in the Communist Party is, of course, nothing new. But the jockeying today is no longer a zero-sum game in which a winner takes all. It is worth remembering that when Jiang Zemin handed the reins to his successor, Hu Jintao, in 2002, it marked the first time in the republic’s history that the transfer of power didn’t involve bloodshed or purges. What’s more, Hu was not a protégé of Jiang’s; they belonged to competing factions. To borrow a phrase popular in Washington these days, post-Deng China has been run by a team of rivals.
This internal competition was enshrined as party practice a little more than a year ago. In October 2007, President Hu surprised many China watchers by abandoning the party’s normally straightforward succession procedure and designating not one but two heirs apparent. The Central Committee named Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang—two very different leaders in their early 50s—to the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, where the rulers of China are groomed. The future roles of these two men, who will essentially share power after the next party congress meets in 2012, have since been refined: Xi will be the candidate to succeed the president, and Li will succeed Premier Wen Jiabao. The two rising stars share little in terms of family background, political association, leadership skills, and policy orientation. But they are each heavily involved in shaping economic policy—and they are expected to lead the two competing coalitions that will be relied upon to craft China’s political and economic trajectory in the next decade and beyond.
One thing is for sure: They have the profoundly difficult task of quickly and effectively transforming the country’s long-standing model of export-led development.