It is now several days since the once-every-ten years Congress of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party that decides on the top leadership of the party and the nation for the coming decade closed up shop. On the surface the main winner is Xi Jinping, a reputed "princeling" whose father was a general of the Long March era and thus one of the leading cadres of the party in the early days of Mao's leadership. The main post that he was awarded is to be the Secretary-General of the party, which in communist-ruled countries has traditionally been the top leadership position, at least as long as the party rules the government and society.
However, Xi is doing even better than just that and his predecessors. His two predecessors were Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Both were initially selected to become leaders by Deng Xiaoping, who only held a few official positions, Vice Premier and Chairman of the Military Commission, the latter position making him Commander-in-Chief. But he was never Secretary-General of the party or President, the official Head of State, those two positions wandering among various others while he was Vice Premier and Military Commission Chairman. However, both Jiang and Hu would come to hold the three positions: Secretary-General, President, and Chairman of the Military Commission.
Xi's move into these is going faster than was the case for his predecessors. He is Sec -Gen already, and this has been widely announced. Hu Jintao continues to be President, however it is all but certain that he will step aside next March when the new Peoples' Congress elects the President and Premier. This gap in transition imitates what happened when Hu came to power and when Jiang came to power before him.
Where Xi is breaking precedent is that he has also been chosen now to be Chairman of the Military Commission, reportedly at the request of his predecessor Hu. Hu had to wait two years after becoming Sec-Gen to get this position, and his predecessor, Jiang, also had to wait for two years, while Deng Xiaoping remained as Commander-in-Chief and effective shadow boss to make sure that Jiang did as expected and hoped for. Hu's handing over this very powerful position means that indeed he will not be exercising any further effective power. Xi is more clearly the boss.
Ah, but things are not so simple. The Chinese invented bureaucracy (although the French invented the term), and they have more layers within the party than other nations. The old USSR had a Central Committee and then a Politburo [Political Bureau] of that group that was the real leadership group, with its numbers fluctuating over time, but in later years consisting of 7 members, with the Secretary-General being the Chairman of that body. In China there are 106 members of the Central Committee, but the Politburo is an unwieldy 25. So, the top body is the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Central Committee. That group was 9, but at this Congress its number was reduced to 7. Xi Jinping is in it as is incoming Premier, Le Kiaoqeng.
But this is not the end of the story. In the days of Deng, it was believed that the real power resided in an unofficial group of older leaders who all resided in Zhongnanghei, a compound not too far to the west of the Imperial Palace in central Beijing. This unoffical group was known as the "Sitting Committee," presumably because they were so old they sat all the time. Those in the Standing Committee were just their flunkies. It appears that this body is being reconstructed. The sign of this is that Xi and 4 others of the new Standing Committee are reportedly proteges of past president Jiang Zemin, now 86. He addressed the opening session of the party Congress, but holds no official positions at all. His rival for power in that body is apparently Hu Jintao, but Hu has only one clear protege in the new Standing Committee, incoming Premier Le. The fact that Hu is stepping down now in favor of Xi for the position of Military Commission Chairman is the bottom line sign of his defeat by Jiang in this power struggle.
So what does this mean in terms of policy? This is not entirely clear. However, Jiang's group seems to be full of princelings and also many involved in businesses, often with accusations of corruption coinciding. They are also thought to be somewhat more market capitalist oriented. Hu's group largely come from the Youth organization of the party, most from modest backgrounds. When Hu came to power he made much noise about attempting to equalize incomes, particularly across regions. However, he has been accused of being too cautious, and it does not appear that there has been much movement towards such equalization.
Perhaps lying behind this victory of Jiang over Hu is an earlier fight over the past year involving the former party chief of Chongqing, Bo Xilai. Strongly supported by some in the military (since purged) he pushed a neo-Maoist populist line of moving much more sharply towards equality and a revival of cultural Maoism. Ironically he was personally a princeling but running to the left of the Hu crowd. However, he was brought low by charges of corruption and a murder charge against his wife involving a British diplomat. It may well be that the fall of Bo was the real power struggle, with Jiang the main player behind the scenes in that. With this victory, he probably also had won the day over the more moderate Hu faction, although they appear not to have been totally purged. Hu can stick around to joust with Jiang on the Sitting Committee in Zhonganghei. But for now, it appears that the princeling proteges of Jiang Zemin are in charge, with a high likelihood of more moves towards market capitalist reforms, even as newly appointed figures in the military may push a more aggressive and hardline stance in terms of relations with the rest of the world.