China’s Leadership Transition & Implications

˙ Asia & Latin America

China’s politics are highly opaque according to David Shambaugh, who recently offered thoughts on China’s upcoming leadership transition and implications for Latin America at the Inter-American Dialogue.

China’s political system and Communist Party processes are increasingly regularized, meritocratic, and institutionalized, explained Shambaugh, a China expert and professor at The George Washington University. But party politics remains shrouded in secrecy, as evidenced by the lack of information surrounding the week-long disappearance of Xi Jinping, China’s presumed future president. 

Despite China’s political opacity, it is nonetheless possible to identify a pool of candidates for top positions in China’s Politburo and elite Politburo Standing Committee, who will be announced in early November in conjunction with the country’s 18th Party Congress.

Aside from Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, China’s future premier, Li Yuangqiao, the head of the Organization Department of the Central Committee, and current vice premier Wang Qishan will also likely assume positions in the Poliburo Standing Committee, China’s most powerful decision-making body. Wang Yang of Guangdong, Yu Zhengsheng of Shanghai, and Zhang Dejiang, the current leader of Chongqing’s party committee, are other probable recipients of much-coveted Standing Committee seats. 

Implications for China-Latin America Relations

Despite a 75 percent turnover among China’s top leaders, China’s relations with Latin America are likely to progress much as they have over the past few years, Shambaugh predicted.

Even a shake-up of China’s foreign policy apparatus is unlikely to affect China-Latin America relations in a significant way. China will replace the current foreign minister, other top officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the state councilor, the head of the Central Office for Foreign Affairs, and the party’s International Department head, but China’s policy toward Latin America will continue on “auto-pilot,” according to Shambaugh. If anything, he insisted, Latin America will become a higher foreign policy priority for China. That said, much could still depend on the efforts of Shen Zhiliang, the new Ministry of Foreign Affairs director-general for Latin America.

Of even greater importance, perhaps, is whether China’s new leadership, led by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, will provide the sort of strong, visionary, sophisticated, and assertive leadership that China will need over the next ten years. Politics “inside the ring roads” is as polarized as politics “inside the beltway,” according to Shambaugh. Widening cleavages among party coalitions may curtail future progress. Political distortions, economic imbalances, corruption, and a wide range of social issues – all signs of dynastic decay in China’s ancient history — threaten growth, prosperity, and stability, he argued. 

Domestic political, economic or social instability in China would have implications not only for Latin America, but globally. Whoever ascends to the ranks of China’s top decision-making bodies will face an increasingly critical set of domestic and international challenges in coming years.

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