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China's next inner circle of leaders

HONG KONG -- Even as Xi Jinping gets ready to assume the presidency of China this month, jockeying has begun for 2017 when rising stars of the ruling Communist Party move into top leadership posts.

China's first and second generation of Communist Party leaders, such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, ruled as single paramount leaders. But over the past two decades, Chinese leaders have tried to institutionalize governance with an emphasis on collective leadership — except when it comes to choosing leaders.

The process is highly secretive and influenced by faction leaders who jockey to get their allies on the 25-member Politburo and its apex body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee.

“In certain areas the rules and the norms of institutionalization continue, but in certain areas they are subject to manipulation, in particular with regard to the selection of the Politburo,” said Cheng Li, director of research at the John L. Thornton China Center in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution.

China's once-in-a-decade leadership transition last November installed a largely caretaker leadership in the Standing Committee. In 2017, five of the seven members will reach retirement age after one term in office. Only China's top two leaders, president-in-waiting Xi Jinping and premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang, will remain on the powerful body in 2017.

Two main factions are competing for power within the Standing Committee. Members of the “Shanghai Gang,” headed by former Party chief Jiang Zemin, have connections to China's commercial capital. The other main faction, the “Tuanpai,” is led by outgoing President Hu Jintao. Its members, like him, cultivated their careers in the Communist Youth League.

Most of the Politburo members and provincial Party secretaries eligible for promotion in the next term in 2017 have experience in the Communist Youth League, according to data from “Connected China” (http://connectedchina.reuters.com), a Reuters site that tracks the careers and connections of China's top leaders.

Although the Politburo appointed in November shows strong ties to Jiang Zemin, analysts say outgoing President Hu Jintao's Communist Youth League faction will gain the upper hand over the longer term.

A third group has also ascended rapidly — the princelings, or privileged children of revolutionary leaders. Key princelings include Xi and Politburo Standing Committee members Yu Zhengsheng, Wang Qishan and Zhang Dejiang.

Consensus Builder

Xi is the first Communist Party General Secretary to take power while his two predecessors are both still alive. That puts him in the role of cautious consensus-builder between factions allied to his two predecessors, rather than an agent of reform, political analysts said.

“I don't think (he) can push much because it's still a Jiang (Zemin) Politburo Standing Committee,” said David Zweig, a Chinese politics scholar at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Six of the seven members on the Standing Committee have ties to Jiang, who relinquished the top Party position over a decade ago. Premier-in-waiting Li, whose ties with Hu go back to the 1980s, is the only Standing Committee member considered to be a Hu protege and a member of his Tuanpai faction.

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