Leadership in ‘Reforming China’

Bhim Subba, ICS-HYI Doctoral Fellow.

Since the reform (gaige kaifang), much writings on Chinese politics have dealt with leadership succession in China. Many scholars argue the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is reluctant in undertaking political reforms unlike the economy. People’s democracy, as many of one-party states proclaim, is criticised because of an absence of competitive electoral party system thereby resulting in appointment of ‘rulers’ without sanctioned by the ‘ruled’. Arguably at the macro level, one can see such trepidations and the influence of the party at all levels of government, but at the same time, one cannot deny that the party’s ruling ideology, organization and leadership selection norms have not undergone transformation.


The leadership selection and appointment in China is not the same as before. Economic reforms necessitated political reforms as well. With compulsory higher educational qualifications for leadership positions, age limits and tenure system have re-invigorated the Party’s ruling capabilities. No leader can remain in power for good, both at the local and central levels. The CCP Organization Department under provisions of the Regulations on the Work of Selecting and Appointing Leading Party and Government Cadres (2002) supervises the recruitment and appointment of senior cadres and officials above county and division level.

The newly selected cadres after recruitment are sent to different managerial and professional schools, and not to forget the party schools of the provinces and the centre. In fact, for a primary official to become a vice-minister takes almost 2 decades, and can face tough competition at every higher level. Mandatory in-service training-peixun of 3-6 months is undertaken by civilian cadres every 3-5 years. Among the military as well, enhanced educational qualifications and peixun play important role in promotion and upper political mobility. This practice is also dominant in the PLA, where tertiary qualifications are important for moving up the leadership ladder.

Further, the trends of political career advancement in the Party and government are changing. For CCP recruits, more emphasis is given on the party loyalty than qualifications, but for the government positions vigorous screening is done. Therefore, one may observe this ‘elite dualism’ in China, a strategy of moving from informal to formal institutionalisation of politics in the reform era.

Daniel Bell argues the Chinese leadership selection is based on ‘political meritocracy’. The Party constitution ideally describes that people should rise within the Party or State based on their ‘moral integrity and professional competence’ and ‘not on their origins’. In practice, this is not what it seems. The political bargaining among different factions and coalitions (princelings-taizidang, Youth League–tuanpai, ‘mishu’ provincial groups) still look predominant undermining the meritocratic selection, especially, at the higher level. However, factional politics is no longer a vicious power struggle as before. Even ‘anti-corruption’ campaign unleashed by the party to cleanse from corrupt leaders, cadres, businessmen, etc. show this change.

In spite of these political struggles, the shared goals of political and social stability, economic growth and nationalism have ensured the survival of the Party itself, though ‘individual dominance within collective leadership’ has increased since Xi Jinping came to power in 18th Party Congress in 2012.

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