Understanding the Politburo (and Standing Committee) of the Communist Party of China


Those who believe political leadership structures “sound” too bureaucratic in the West should perhaps sit down before reading up on how things work in China, because the “first contact” moment might be quite shocking. On the other hand, those who grew up in communist or formerly communist nations (yours truly, for example, who grew up in post-communist Eastern Europe) will understand these structures all too well.

Indeed, you find many particularities associated with communist regimes of the past in China. As far as the Politburo is concerned (the Central Politburo of the Communist Party of China or to be even more formal, the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee), however, it is worth pointing out that power being centralized when it comes to the so-called Politburo Standing Committee represents a particularity.

To keep things (somewhat) simple, the Politburo (for the sake of preserving what little sanity we have left, we will use this one-word term moving forward) consists of 25 individuals, the most influential members of the Communist Party of China. Technically speaking, the Central Committee is the entity which elects Politburo members. In more practical terms, however, the equation seems to be a bit more incestuous, in that members are chosen through deliberations between existing as well as retired members.

What is the Politburo Standing Committee or, to use more pompous terminology, the Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (quite a mouthful)? Let’s just say that while the Politburo consists of the elite (25) members of the Communist Party of China, the Politburo Standing Committee consists of the elite among the elite. At this point in time, there are 7 Politburo Standing Committee members, a figure which can fluctuate between 5 and 11.

In terms of subordination… let’s just say things are tricky. Once again, technically speaking, the Politburo Standing Committee is supposed to answer to the Politburo, which itself formally answers to the Central Committee. In practice, however, that is definitely not the case, with the Politburo Standing Committee overshadowing the two other entities in terms of influence.

We need to understand that just like when it comes to many other aspects pertaining to China and how things are handled in China, “indirect” is the operative word. Observers who are expecting the members of the Politburo and/or the Politburo Standing Committee to have clearly-defined let’s say executive responsibilities (in other words, observers who expect the two entities to revolve around directly handling key aspects) end up being surprised when they realize that clarity is… well, lacking.

Many of the internal workings of the two are not exactly known to the public and therefore subject to speculation. Suffice it to say that the power of the two lies in the fact that its members occupy various other positions within the Chinese administrative system. Key positions, of course. Think of them as political gatherings of the CPC elite, which may not be the most precise description out there but is close enough.

Moving on to the present, here are the seven members of China’s 19th Politburo Standing Committee, revealed during the First Plenum of China’s 19th Central Committee back in October of 2017:

… needless to say, the seven previously-mentioned individuals are also simple Politburo members, with the other Politburo members being:

  • Ding Xuexiang
  • Wang Chen
  • Liu He
  • Xu Qiliang
  • Sun Chunlan
  • Li Xi
  • Li Qiang
  • Li Hongzhong
  • Yang Jiechi
  • Yang Xiaodu
  • Zhang Youxia
  • Chen Xi
  • Chen Quanguo
  • Chen Min’er
  • Hu Chunhua
  • Guo Shengkun
  • Huang Kunming
  • Cai Qi

It is worth noting that at various points throughout the history of the People’s Republic of China, the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee had occasional let’s call them hiccups. For example, the Politburo Standing Committee wasn’t anywhere near as influential as today during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution days. The same way, the Politburo was overpowered during the Hu Yaobang days, with the entity overpowering it being the Secretariat of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, a state of affairs that was no longer valid as of 1987.

As complex to the point of unnecessarily complex as it may seem, there is let’s say method behind this madness. To someone who is accustomed to the (more) transparent manner in which policy is shaped in the West, this entire situation may very well seem disheartening. Whether or not you personally agree with the Politburo / Politburo Standing Committee approach, the situation is what it is and as an investor who is interested in gaining exposure to Chinese assets, it is just something you have to deal with.

After conducting business in China for over 13 years, the ChinaFund.com team learned a thing or two about the particularities of the system. If you will, we have so you do not have to, should you choose to hire us as consultants. To find out more about this service, access our Consulting section or to get in touch directly by leaving a message, visit the Contact section of ChinaFund.com.

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