“Xi Jinping himself didn’t come to power because of outstanding political achievements,” said Pu Zhiqiang (浦志強), a rights lawyer, who added that he believed the new leadership was “quite mediocre.”
Just as important as family connections and demonstrated party loyalty is the ability to cultivate China’s top leaders. Five members of the standing committee are considered allies of Jiang Zemin (江澤民), the party leader who stepped down in 2002, and the others have ties to his successor and rival, President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). At least one, Shanghai party boss Yu Zhengsheng (俞正聲), is also closely aligned with the family of Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), the supreme leader who appointed both Jiang and Hu.
Jiang was the dominant force shaping the seven-member standing committee this year. Old loyalists were rewarded with seats, beating out several candidates — Wang Yang (汪洋) and Li Yuanchao (李源潮) among them — who were considered more talented or more charismatic.
Li, the head of the Organization Department, “did a lot of things and he’s very smart,” said Zhang Xiaojin (張小勁), a political scientist at Tsinghua University. “But when you do a lot of things, you often have problems.”
The party hierarchy has its defenders. Xinhua, the state news agency, quoted Xie Chuntao (謝春濤), a professor at the Central Party School, as saying: “The new leaders are not ossified or conservative.”
However, other analysts say that most of the standing committee members, whose average age is 63, got there precisely because of their banality, since the system knocks down politicians who stick out too much.
“Normal logic is that based on a meritocracy, whoever is better in terms of performance should be picked,” said Bo Zhiyue (薄智躍), a scholar of Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore.
“But in Chinese politics, they have a logic of reverse selection,” he added. “If A is better than B, then A should be eliminated.”
That anti-meritocracy logic was at work even in the assigning of portfolios. Many political insiders say that of the seven men, Wang Qishan, with his years of experience in the finance sector, would be the most able to take on day-to-day management of China’s economy. However, they said he was shunted aside to be head of an anti-corruption commission because Vice Premier Li Keqiang (李克強), the second-ranked party member and designated heir to the title of government premier, which carries overall responsibility for the economy, and other leaders feared sharing that power with the confident Wang would cause friction.
“It’s sort of absurd,” said Wu Jiaxiang (吳稼祥), once an adviser to Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), the party chief purged during the 1989 student uprising. “It shows how power games can distort the arrangements.”
Li, though well educated, failed to stand out while governing provinces; in fact, as party chief of Henan province, he was responsible for trying to cover up one of China’s worst health scandals.