China’s New Foreign-Policy Team


2013-02-01 by Richard Weitz

Although China’s foreign policy decision-making process remains highly centralized, over time the number of actors who influence these decisions has grown.

The majority of China’s foreign policy decisions still lie in the hands of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee — the most powerful decision-making body in the country.

The PRC has new foreign policy leaders. But none of the new top leaders have a major background in foreign or defense policy. Credit Image: Bigstock

Its membership until the November 2012 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) consisted of the CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao, Premier of the State Council Wen Jiabao, Chairman of the National People’s Congress Wu Bangguo, Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Jia Qinglin, Vice-President Zeng Qinghong, Vice-Premier Huang Ju, Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection Wu Guanzheng, chief party ideologist Li Changchun, and Political and Legislative Affairs Committee Secretary Luo Gan.

The new leadership team elected at the 18th CCP Party Congress consists of:

  • CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping
  • Premier of the State Council Li Keqiang
  • Chairman of the National People’s Congress.Zhang Dejiang
  • Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Yu Zhengsheng
  • Executive Secretariat member Liu Yunshan
  • Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection Wang Qishan
  • Executive Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli

These individuals, who comprise the fifth-generation of CCP leaders and are led by two leaders who were born after the PRC was founded in 1949, could remain in charge of China’s foreign policy for the next decade or more—or they could lose power almost overnight like Bo Xilai, a rising CCP media star who ran afoul of a major scandal in early 2012.   

Chinese Leaders (as of late 2012) [ref] This information is derived from Cheng Li, “China’s Top Future Leaders to Watch,”,  November 15, 2012). See also “Top CPC Leadership,” Xinhua, 2013, [/ref]

  Position(s) Affiliation(s) Policy Preference Indicators
Xi Jinping CPC General Secretary, Central Military Commission Chairman, PRC President (expected) Princeling, Shanghai; Jiang’s network Simultaneously market-friendly and pro-protectionism; military ties and nationalist
Li Keqiang Premier (expected) Communist Youth League; Hu’s network Populist; focused on domestic issues such as employment and regional development
Zhang Dejiang Vice Premier, Chongqing Party Secretary Princeling; Jiang-ist Pro-protectionism; son of former PLA major general
Yu Zhengsheng Shanghai Party Secretary Princeling, Shanghai; Jiang-ist Market-friendly, pro-social reform
Liu Yunshan Director of CPC Propaganda Department CYL; Hu-ist Conservative media control
Wang Qishan Vice Premier Princeling; Jiang-ist and protégé of former premier Zhu Rongji Liberalization of foreign investment and trade
Zhang Gaoli Tianjin Party Secretary Princeling; Jiang-ist and protégé of former vice president Zeng Qinghong Market-friendly

None of the new top leaders have a major background in foreign or defense policy.

PRC leaders are bound together more by their factional ties than by their substantive policy preferences.

Xi is considered to be the leader of the “princeling” faction in the CCP.

The princelings are the children of earlier PRC leaders who have now risen to prominence in the Party, State, and especially the PLA. Most were born in relatively privileged circumstances and come from the prosperous coastal provinces and major cities. This environment caused many to become interested in economic development and business. (In fact, most children of CCP leaders enter into business rather than follow their parents into politics.) Members of the so-called “Shanghai group” are the allies of former leader Jiang Zemin. They generally represent the views of coastal business interest.

These two “elitists” factions are often at odds with Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League (CYL) faction and the “populist” coalition that hails from the rural and economically underdeveloped interior and is concerned with the implications of uneven development and the growing income gap.

The princelings are expected to be the main rivals of the ruling CYL faction in the coming years, especially with Xi’s ascension to the top leadership position.

Despite the factional rivalry, most members of the new fifth-generation of CCP leaders are technocratic pragmatists rather than ideologues who will likely not make major breaks in China’s foreign policy. Like most Chinese politicians, they place stability and continued Party rule above all other concerns.

The main changes in PRC policy will likely lie in the realm of domestic policy, with increased emphasis on economic liberalization, GDP growth, and the development of east coast business interests, in contrast with the Hu-Wen administration’s focus on improving social welfare and promoting development of China’s rural interior.

Xi has also emphasized the fight against corruption, which he said could destroy the Party.

Since then, the PLA has been instructed to reduce the lavishness of its dinners and other entertainment.

The next step may be to reign in local Party bosses, who rule without major local checks and balances. The Chinese economy, with its unique brand of market state capitalism, also needs much attention due to the high costs of food and housing; the property bubble may burst soon given the large number of empty leases.


Xi Jinping is China’s new President, CCP General Secretary, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. He is known as a “princeling” due to his being the son of Xi Zhongxun, a former CCP Politburo member, PRC vice premier, and economic reformer. Xi Jinping is also a protégé of former PRC President Jiang Zemin and Vice President Zeng Qinghong. Despite his prominence, Xi’s public record is that of a hard worker, competent administrator, and elite consensus builder, without any strong substantive commitments or writings, which made a safe choice for China’s next leader. He successfully managed a series of government posts of increasing responsibility as well as several recent large-scale events, including the Beijing Olympics. He has also cultivated a large network of influential contacts throughout China. Like other PRC leaders, he has endorsed further economic but not political reform. His main conceptual theme has been to raise ideological and moral purity of party leaders to counter corruption and any erosion of Party discipline. The PRC media has strived to dispel the negative impression of Xi’s being a “princling” –that he rose to power through various elite connections due to birth rather than merit–by highlighting his personal hardships and talents.

A native of Fuping County, Shaanxi province, Xi was born in 1953. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was an important guerrilla commander during the Japanese occupation and became an influential CCP leader and vice premier. During the Cultural Revolution, Xi’s father was accused of plotting against the Party and jailed. The young Jinping and his six siblings also faced persecution because of their father’s fall from grace. Local party officials and zealous Red Guards forced him to attend daily “struggle” sessions where he had to prove his loyalties by denouncing his father. In the end, however, Xi decided to make the most out of his predicament and adopt a positive attitude toward his work. At the age of 16, Xi went to Liangjiahe village in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province to labor at shepherding animals, gathering wheat, and cutting hay. Villager of Liangjiahe who supposedly knew Xi said he left a positive impression because of his work ethic and physical prowess. Xi became CCP branch secretary for the village after joining the Communist Party in 1974. Xi describes his exile to the desert province as a “defining experience” in his life.

In 1975, the local government recommended Xi for admission to the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing and four years later he graduated with a degree in chemical engineering.  By this time Mao had died, the Cultural Revolution was over, and Xi’s father was rehabilitated and governor of Guangdong Province, where he played a major role in promoting the SEZ and other economic reforms Xi’s family connections helped him find jobs in Beijing. From 1979 to 1982, for example, he worked at the General Office of the CMC as an aide to his father’s former subordinate, Geng Biao, then a vice premier and CMC secretary-general. The post helped Xi develop ties to the PLA.

In 1982, Xi moved from Beijing to Zhengding County in north China’s Hebei Province. Between 1982 and 1985, he held the positions of Deputy Secretary and later Secretary of the local Party Committee. Xi reportedly said that he asked for the transfer to this low-profile province because he did not like the institutional culture in Beijing. Xi may have made the move to disarm fears that he had senior PRC political ambitions. The elders who had purged his father worried that the younger Xi might try to retaliate. In 1985, he made a short trip to the United States when he traveled to Muscatine, Iowa as the head of a delegation concerned with animal feed. While there, Xi studied ways to raise hogs and stayed with a local family. The individual who hosted Xi, Eleanor Dvorchak, said that, “He was a very polite and kind guy. I could see someone very devoted to his work,” adding that, “He was serious. He was a man on a mission.” The organizer of the trip, Sarah Lande, observed that, “You could tell he was in charge … he seemed relaxed and welcoming and able to handle things,” and “He had the words he wanted to express himself easily.”

That year, Xi became Party chief of Ningde Prefecture in Fujian Province, which is located in southeast China, across from Taiwan. He would spend the next 17 years in Fujian province, holding various government and leadership positions, until he finally attained the status of provincial governor in 2000. His successes enabled Xi to survive his father’s third and final fall from power for advocating liberal views. The younger Xi made a name for himself in Fujan by rooting out local corruption. He also worked to attract overseas investment, tried to improve relations with Taiwan, promoted environmental conservation, and sought to improve public services. His slogan of “Do it now” aimed to convey the message to work efficiently and respond swiftly to issues. Xi’s success in Fujian made him popular and helped his political ascension. The 15th Party Congress in 1997 elected Xi as an alternate member of the CCP Central Committee.

In 2002, Xi became a full CCP Central Committee member and moved to Zhejiang Province, where he stayed through 2007. He served as secretary of the CPC Zhejiang Provincial Committee, acting governor of the province, and chairman of the Standing Committee of Zhejiang’s Provincial People’s Congress. As he did in Fujian, he tried to lure foreign investment to the province. A U.S. diplomatic cable later released by WikiLeaks suggested that Xi helped U.S. businesses expand their presence in Zhejiang. Xi also attempted to restructure Zhejiang’s industrial base, trying to reduce pollution and energy consumption and working more closely with Jiangsu Province and the municipality of Shanghai. He managed the successful evacuation of approximately one million people during an August 2006 typhoon.

In 2007, Xi became Secretary of the CPC Shanghai Municipal Committee following a corruption scandal. However, he would only be in charge of Shanghai for a short while, as he was promoted to the nine-member Political Bureau Standing Committee, the country’s top governing body, at the 17th Party Congress six months later. He also became a member of the CCP Secretariat and President of the Central Party School, the Party’s cadre-training and ideological education wing. On March 15, 2008, the 11th National People’s Congress elected Xi PRC Vice President. He was put in charge of preparing for the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, as well as the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs. From 2010 until 2012, he was the Vice Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission. His October 2010 appointment is widely seen as a step towards Xi’s succeeding President Hu Jintao.

During the past five years, Xi traveled to more than 40 countries to meet foreign leaders interested in China’s new leader-in-waiting. During a five-day visit to the United States in February 2012, Xi said that the relationship between China and the United States was at a “new historical starting point.” He has met frequently with Vice President Joseph Biden. When meeting former U.S President Jimmy Carter in Beijing in December 2012, he called for imparting more “positive energy” to the China-U.S. partnership. Xi has regularly defended his country’s human rights record and economic policies and denounced “separatist activities” in Tibet that are associated with the Dalai Lama.

At the age of 59, Xi was elected at the18th CCP Central Committee on November 15, 2012 as the first CCP leader born after the PRC’s founding in 1949. Since becoming CCP General Secretary, Xi has reaffirmed the Party’s commitment to “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” His promotion to CMC chair has allowed Xi to extend his fight against corruption, which he warned could destroy the Party, to the PLA, by limiting lavish entertainment budgets. Xi’s economic policies have sought to sustain China’s economic growth while moderating inflation and preventing a bursting property bubble. He reacted moderately to mass protests in Hong Kong calling for greater democracy and limits in Beijing’s influence over Hong Kong’s internal affairs. Xi has yet to make a major mark on Chinese foreign policy, an area that was not previously part of his portfolio.

In terms of his personal life, Xi’s first wife was the daughter of the former PRC ambassador to the United Kingdom. Xi then remarried, Peng Liyuan, who until recently was more famous than Xi as the lead performer in a song and dance company attached to the PLA. Their only daughter, Xi Mingze, attends Harvard University under an assumed name, while Xi’s sister, Xi An’an, may live in Canada.


Under Hu Jintao’s patronage, Li Keqiang rose through the Communist Youth League (CYL) and recently became PRC premier, a Politburo member, and the deputy secretary of the Leading Party Members’ Group. He is widely considered China’s no. 2 leader, after Xi Jinping, and has publicly advocated strengthening China’s economic reforms.

Li was born in 1955, in Dingyuan County, Anhui Province. Although his father was a local official, Li’s roots in this impoverished inland region distinguish him from many of China’s current leaders. Li came of age during the final years of the Cultural Revolution and followed Mao’s instruction for youths to learn from the peasants by working in the countryside. In 1974, the 19-year-old Li was sent to Fengyang, an impoverished county in east China’s Anhui Province, to perform farming and other manual labor. Two years later, he became a CCP member and, by 1978, he was the Party Secretary for his production brigade. He then entered the Law School of Peking University and in 1980 became head of the university’s Student Federation. Upon graduation in 1982, he remained head of Peking University’s CYL chapter.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in law in 1982, Li continued to study part time and eventually obtained masters and doctorate degrees (1994) in economics. Li’s doctoral dissertation, “On the Tri-structure of China’s Economy,” won the Sun Yefang Prize, the top honor for economics.  At the same time, he continued his work with the CYL for the next 15 years, becoming an alternate member of the CYL Secretariat. Between 1983 and 1985, Li worked under Hu Jintao, then CYL First Secretary. In 1985, Li became a full member of the CYL Secretariat and was responsible for the national youth and children’s associations. In 1993, Li became the CYL First Secretary. Though making sure the organization followed Hu’s leadership, under Li’s leadership, the CYL declined in popularity among young members.

In 1997, Li was made a full member of the CCP Central Committee. At the age of 43, Li became China’s youngest governor with a doctoral degree when, in June 1998, he was appointed Governor of Henan, one of China’s most populous provinces. Li drew insights, capital, and experts from China’s east coast provinces to help bring more industry to what had until then been a largely agricultural province. He also encouraged enterprises to sell products to western provinces that had lagged behind the coastal provinces in development. As a result of this clever positioning, Henan rose in provincial GDP rankings during the seven years Li was in charge of the province, from 20th to 17th in the national per capita GDP rankings. It also emerged as the most developed of China’s interior provinces. However, some blame him for a scandal in which tens of thousands of people were infected with HIV after donating blood in the 1990s.

Li was transferred to Liaoning Province in northeast China, where he was Party Secretary from 2004-07. He left his mark through ambitious projects to develop transportation infrastructure and remove slums in the province’s once vibrant industrial cities. With government support, more than one million people moved from shantytowns to newly-built apartment buildings. The project’s success was due to Liaoning’s access to lavish central government funding and loans through his close relationship with President Hu, who treated him as his protégé. Regardless, Li’s slum-removal project marked his greatest success up to that point and likely secured his political future.

After three years in Liaoning, Li was appointed to the PRC’s most powerful body, the Politburo Standing Committee, joining his contemporary, Xi Jinping as the senior member of the CCP’s fifth-generation leadership. This broke with tradition; in previous years, only one clear “core” leader was usually visible, though it soon became clear that Xi would receive the highest position and Li would succeed Wen Jiabao for the second-ranked premier position. At the 2008 National People’s Congress, Li was elected first vice premier in charge of economic development and reform, fiscal affairs, urban-rural construction, environmental protection, land and resources, and public health and food safety for the State Council. Through his election, Li became China’s youngest vice premier in nearly 20 years. In this capacity, Li led the formulation of China’s 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015). Hu Jintao’s probably wanted Li to succeed him as CCP General Secretary but, reflecting the trend towards consensus rule, Hu was unable to secure the appointment of his protégé to that post, which went to Xi.

At the 2010 World Economic Forum in Davos, Li briefed the audience on China’s commitment to sustainable development, green energy, reduced income inequality, and modernization of key industries. In a February 2010 speech to ministerial and provincial-level leaders, Li stressed that China has come to a historical juncture when its economic structure must change for the country to continue growing. He emphasized the need to boost domestic consumption and address sprawling urbanization. In October 2011, Li led a delegation that visited both North and South Korea, suggesting he may play a role in China’s Korean diplomacy in the future. He knows English well and his wife, Cheng Hong, is an English professor at the foreign language department of Capital University of Economics and Business.

In his speeches, Li has called reform “the biggest dividend for China.” He has studied international reports assessing China’s economic challenges and reform opportunities. He encouraged publication of the “China 2030,” prepared by the World Bank and China’s state-backed Development Research Center, which advocates breaking apart China’s powerful state sector monopolies. Li has declared support for increasing employment, offering more affordable housing, providing basic health care, balancing regional development, and promoting innovation in clean energy technology. Li reportedly also is skeptical of some of government’s economic numbers, describing them as “for reference only.” Yet, Li’s influence in the new leadership is presently much less than that of Xi since only propaganda czar Liu Yunshan, another product of the Communist Youth League system, appears to share his left-wing populist views.


Bo Xilai was born on July 3, 1949 in Dingxiang Country in Shanxi Province. He was the fourth child of Bo Yibo, who until 1965 had served as Minister of Finance. Bo Xilai enjoyed a privileged lifestyle throughout most of his princeling childhood.  Together with his brothers and other party cadre children he attended Number 4 High School in Beijing, one of the most prestigious schools in the whole country. When in 1966 Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution, the 17 year old Bo together with friends, formed a radical Red Guard faction known as the liandong (“United Action”), which on the one hand embraced far-reaching ideological purges, while on the other tried to protect their family and status as red nobility. Nonetheless, Bo Yibo was labeled as “rightist” and “counterrevolutionary” and sent to prison for 12 years, while his wife was either beaten to death or committed suicide after being abducted by the Red Guard in Guangzhou.

In 1972, after his release from labor camp, Bo Xilai started to work at a machine repair factory for the Beijing Second Light Industry Bureau. With Mao’s death in 1976, things rapidly changed for the now 27 year old Bo Xilai. Bo Yibo was politically rehabilitated by his wartime friend Deng Xiaoping, becoming vice premier in 1979 and becoming one of Deng’s most trusted aides. Bo Xilai married Li Danyu; his first wife was a military doctor and daughter of Beijing party secretary Li Xuefeng. Bo’s academic career also found traction in 1977 when he enrolled in Peking University, where he studied world history, a field that distinguished him from his many political peers with engineering degrees. In 1982, he graduated with a Masters degree in international journalism from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Bo joined the Communist Party in 1980. About this time, he began an extramarital affair with Gu Kailai , a daughter of a politically influential family. Bo’s father had to intervene to secure Bo’s divorce from Li Danyu, who successfully resisted a divorce for several years. Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai married in 1986.

Beginning in 1984 Bo Xilai’s political career was following an upward trajectory, starting from a low-ranking government official in the Dalian Economic and Technological Development Zone to becoming the mayor of Dalian between 1992-2000. In 2001 Bo was appointed permanent governor of the Liaoning province. He became famous for his success in attracting investment to city, major public works projects, and his hardline approach toward Falun Gong practitioners. In 2004 Bo secured himself a spot as Commerce Minister and CCP Commerce Secretary, his first high-ranking position within the party. Even so, it took several attempts by his family to secure Bo a seat on the CCP Central Committee, which occurred at the 17th Party Congress in 2007. Bo’s hard-charging ways were not appreciated in the government, where Bo was seen as arrogant, self-aggrandizing, and disrespectful of other leaders’ interests.

In 2007, Bo’s influential father died, and he was forced to leave Beijing for a political backwater: to serve as Communist Party Secretary of the large (with some 30 million residents) but remote southwestern interior city of Chongqing. Bo sought to revive his political fortunes by promoting what became known as the “Chongqing model” of development. This campaign urged residents to sing “red songs” and display slogans from the Maoist era. He also supported lavish public spending on road building and other infrastructure as well as on social programs to improve the lives of the city’s poor. Bo cultivated a casual and charismatic image in the media. He launched a high-profile aggressive anticorruption campaign known as Dahei (“Striking Black”) against criminal gangs that secured unjust convictions and ignored civil rights. Wang, a trusted ally, was instrumental in carrying out the fierce crackdown on organized crime that resulted in thousands of arrests, including of senior police officers, wealthy businessmen, and high-level Party officials accused of shielding criminal leaders. More than a dozen people were executed after speedy and seemingly unfair trials that critics claimed were aimed at eliminating political rivals and stealing their money.

Bo was notorious for his political ambitions. His self-promotion campaigns ran against the PRC political tradition of hiding one’s ambitions. Bo’s admirers included Jiang Zemin, other princelings, and those who admired his seeming ability to secure results. He also appealed to those alienated or excluded from China’s socioeconomic benefits, put off by the rise of crime and corruption, or nostalgic for the Mao era and its sense of community and equality. Yet, Bo’s style unnerved some legal professionals, liberal intellectuals, and many party and military leaders who feared his tactics and revolutionary rhetoric threatened to revive the destructive ways of China’s leftist past. Conversely, some considered Bo a political opportunist who exploited neo-Maoism as a public relations tool. The high-profile escapades of his son, who was posting pictures on the Internet of his partying while studying at Oxford and Harvard, brought unwelcome attention to the practice of many Chinese political leaders of sending their children to elite schools abroad whose entry fees were far in excess of their parents’ official salaries.  Locals also criticized what they saw as Bo’s ruthless and arrogant behavior. He reportedly extorted money from business leaders to fund high-profile public shows and displays. Employees described him as a demanding and unforgiving boss who physically assaulted those who failed to deliver what he wanted. Many economists consider Chongqing’s massive public debt unsustainable and certainly no model for other parts of China.

Bo’s plans to rise further became undone in February 6, 2012, when his former police chief, Wang Lijun, sought refuge in the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu after he feared that Bo was planning to make him take the fall for the central government’s investigations into the abuses during the Dahei campaign, which Wang had led, gaining the reputation as one of the most ruthless police leaders in all of China. Wang brought along with him lurid evidence of the murder of Neil Heywood, a British businessman who tried to fix deals between Chinese and foreign people and institutions, by Bo’s wife. Although U.S. authorities denied Wang asylum on human rights grounds, they helped him surrender to the central government in Beijing rather than Bo’s men in Chongqing. In any case, the move triggered one of the most serious Chinese political scandals in recent years since his act attracted massive publicity to the corruption and abuse of power at the highest levels of China. Bo’s last-ditch effort to accuse his rivals of jealously and attempting to derail his Maoist revival failed as he was stripped of his position in March and his wife was arrested for murder. At the end of September 2012, Chinese leaders announced that Bo had been officially expelled from the Communist Party and would be brought up on criminal charges.