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China’s New Leaders—the Lineup

Jonathan Fenby | Director of China Research, Trusted Sources
Monday, 5 Nov 2012 | 9:32 PM ET

This is a guest contribution for CNBC.com.

China's leaders are noted for their secrecy. The world last major state ruled by a Communist Party does not go in for the kind of public political contest now playing itself out in the United States ahead of the presidential election. But two days after American voters choose between Obama and Romney, the People's Republic will go through a major transition as a Communist Party Congress names the "Fifth Generation" of leaders to the helm of the world's second largest economy.

In keeping with the opacity that surrounds politics in China, little official information has been published about these leaders or how they got to the top, joining the Standing Committee of the Politburo which stands atop the country's governing structure. But by digging into their past, one can find out a certain amount. Here is a run-down of the main figures after the fall of Bo Xilai, the Party Secretary of the mega-municipality of Chongqing who has been expelled from the Party and awaits trial after pushing his ambitions too far.

Xi Jinping

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He has been positioned since the last Party Congress in 2007 to take on the position of Communist Party Secretary, the top job in China. After being elected to this post by the Central Committee at the Congress opening on November 8, he will become State President and, in due course, assume the third top job as Chair of the Military Commission, though the outgoing leader, Hu Jintao, may seek to retain that last post for a couple of years.

Xi is the leading "princeling" — the children of first generation Communist chiefs. His father was a Vice Premier under Mao Zedong, was purged in the Cultural Revolution when Xi was 'sent down' to the countryside as a boy, living in a cave and looking after pigs. His early attempts to join the Party were rejected. He says that period taught him a lot.

His father was then re-instated under Deng Xiaoping and put in charge of economic reform in Guangdong province which spearheaded China's transformation. Xi worked his way up through a series of provincial posts mainly in the coastal provinces that led the country's economic expansion. (A full account of his career and personality are contained in my new book, "Tiger Head, Snake Tails; China Today").

Sources who have spent time with him concur that he is a consensus figure who will avoid rocking the boat. The main reason why he has been promoted ahead of the other main Fifth Generation figure—Li Keqiang, who was Hu Jintao's preferred candidate—is that the Central Committee and other decision-makers feel comfortable with him.

He has amassed a strong set of jobs. He was in charge of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and is responsible for policy on Hong Kong. As Secretary of the Communist Party Secretariat, he holds a key administrative position from which he can track the flow of information and commands at the top of the power structure. As head of the Party School, he presides over the training of the cadres whose role is to run the country. He has travelled to the United States, Europe, Australia and Latin America, and received foreign visitors including U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

He was groomed for the top by members of the Shanghai Faction, which ran China in the 1990s under former leader Jiang Zemin. He recently weighed in against corruption and stressed the need for "Marxist morality." He tells officials that they must "boost the resoluteness of their political beliefs, the principled nature of their political stance'. He has good contacts in the army and with leading business figures and knows the need to maintain growth. He is married to a famous singer who used to perform with the military entertainment troupe. Their daughter is at Harvard and some of his relatives have built up significant positions for themselves in business despite Xi's warning that the families of leaders should not profit from their connections.

Li Keqiang

Fabrice Coffrini | AFP | Getty Images

Li has been groomed since the 2007 Congress to succeed Wen Jiabao as Prime Minister. This is considered a less powerful post than the Party Secretaryship but does give its holder overall responsibility for economic policy. Despite having Hu Jintao's backing, Li finished one place behind Xi in the Central Committee voting for the Standing Committee at the 2007 Congress. Li, who studied law and economics at Peking University, was then named Executive Vice Premier and will become head of the government when the National People's Congress, the legislature, holds its annual plenary session next March.

Li initially rose through the Communist Youth League (CYL), Hu Jintao's power base, before becoming Governor and then Party Chief of China's most heavily populated province, Henan, between 1998 and 2004. He went on to run Liaoning in the north-east and so has spent part of his career involved with the coastal export-oriented regions. During his time in charge there, Henan rose from 28th to 18th in the national GDP rankings. But his tenure was marred by a big scandal over HIV-contaminated blood, which was hushed up for years. After he left Liaoning, a big pyramid scam involving the breeding of ants, which had been tolerated by officials for eight years, collapsed and sparked angry demonstrations by investors who lost an estimated $390 million.

Li has made several speeches stressing the need for economic reform but he does not have the popular touch of "Grandpa Wen" and lacks the present Premier's extensive administrative and Party experience dating back to the 1980s. His decisiveness has been questioned by some sources.

Wang Qishan

A princeling by marriage, Wang's father-in-law served in government under Mao. He is a protégé of Zhu Rongji, the tough Prime Minister under Jiang. He has an impressive track record: he was Chairman of the China Construction Bank from 1994 to 1997, cleaned up after the collapse of the GITIC investment group at the end of the 1990s, and did a good job as Mayor of Beijing from 2004 to 2007 in helping to deal with the SARS epidemic. He has more international economic experience than any of China's other leaders dealing with the Unites States — former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson noted his 'wicked sense of humour'. He should take responsibility for economic policy under Li but the new Prime Minister may not feel comfortable with such a strong deputy.

He has praised small private businesses as the major source of job creation and complained that the big banks, by contrast, were simply after the business of big companies and jumped from city to city to enlarge their markets with no regard for their home bases.

Wang Yang

The Party Secretary of Guangdong, who belongs to the Youth League group, has spoken of the need for reform — accepting lower growth for rich provinces like his, moving up the value chain and introducing social and environmental measures.

The only member of the top echelon who has worked in a factory he is seen by some as harming his chances of joining the Standing Committee by having spoken out too much.

Li Yuanchao

As head of the Party Organization Department, which oversees all CCP-connected appointments, he is a powerful figure. A princeling by birth, he is also a member of the Communist Youth League grouping.

His ascent from running Jiangsu province, where he introduced reforms to increase official accountability, was fathered by Hu Jintao, to whom he owes hierarchical loyalty.

He is also seen as one of the Fifth-Generation figures closest to Wen Jiabao's calls for political reform, even though he has been more circumspect in speaking out.

Zhang Dejiang

A Vice Premier, he is seen as a safe pair of hands. He was sent to take over Chongqing after the fall of Bo Xilai. A princeling as the son of a major general, he has been

favoured by Jiang Zemin and is seen as a solid administrator and Party stalwart.

(Read more: China at a Turning Point as New Leadership Takes Over)

Yu Zhengsheng

Party Secretary of Shanghai since 2007, he has a complex family history. His great-uncle was a defence minister under the Nationalists; his father was the first husband of Jiang Qing, who later married Mao Zedong. His brother, a state security official, defected to the US and his wife is the daughter of a First-Generation major-general.

Yu himself rose under the patronage of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang from the 1980s onwards, running several big cities before becoming Construction Minister in 1998 and joining the wider Politburo in 2002.

Zhang Gaoli

Communist Party Secretary of the big port city of Tianjin, he is another Jiang protégé.

He presided over the growth of Shenzhen in the 1990s before being promoted to Party Secretary of Shandong.

Then, under Hu Jintao, he moved to the key job of Party Secretary of Tianjin which, with its 13 million inhabitants, is a major development zone intended to re-invigorate the Bohai Bay area.

Liu Yandong

A State Councillor, she is the only woman member of the wider Politburo. The daughter of a former minister, she is a "princess" but she has also known leading Shanghai figures since childhood and worked with Li Keqiang and Li Yuanchao in the management of the Youth League. Hu Jintao promoted her to head the United Front Work Department, responsible for dealing with organizations in Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and overseas Chinese as well as non-CCP bodies on the Mainland. She now focuses on education and culture.

There is still uncertainty over whether the Standing Committee will retain its membership of nine or be cut to seven. However that turns out, the new leaders are likely to take a cautious path initially though they know the need for structural reform. Between slowing economic growth, social problems, an environmental crisis, a demographic shift as the population ages, not to mention rising regional tensions, the Fifth Generation has a task ahead of it every bit as daunting as that facing whoever wins the U.S. election.

Jonathan Fenby was the editor of the South China Morning Post from 1995-99 and is now China Director at the research service, Trusted Sources where he writes a China blog. He has just published an updated edition of his book on China Tiger Head Snake Tails which includes the latest developments in the country.

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