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A public policy blog from AEI
China’s most important political event this year takes place when the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China convenes this Wednesday, October 18. Held every five years, the meeting will conclude with the unveiling of the party’s new Politburo Standing Committee (henceforth referred to in this piece as “the Standing Committee”), a group of seven or so powerful politicians — part of the larger Politburo — who will make the most important decisions for the world’s second-largest economy in the next five years.
Except for Mr. Xi Jinping, who most certainly will continue to hold China’s most powerful office as the party’s general secretary, the identities of the other Standing Committee members are so far shrouded in secrecy. As an interesting political exercise, and because of the important policy implications, we have tried to predict who will join Mr. Xi as a member of the new Standing Committee. We differ from other projections in that their calculations rely heavily on most likely erroneous “precedents” based on seniority or age; Mr. Xi has already demonstrated over the last five years a disregard for the party’s conventional rules. Instead, our prediction discards those precedents altogether and uses the words in the People’s Daily to project the winners.
We should point out that the People’s Daily is not your average newspaper. It’s the flagship publication of the Communist Party of China. Since 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established, this newspaper has been used by the Chinese authorities to make important announcements, propagate official viewpoints, and signal new policy directions to the country and the rest of the world. This unique feature of the People’s Daily lends a rationale to our method: If a politician is a Standing Committee hopeful, the “propaganda machine” is more likely to give prominence to his or her name leading up to the party congress. After all, why would Mr. Xi want to unveil a group of protégés who are unrecognizable to ordinary Chinese citizens?
It’s easy to understand why the identities of the new Standing Committee members draw worldwide attention. They will be the top leaders of the party and, by extension, of the government, army, and country. Having amassed and consolidated enormous power over the past five years, Mr. Xi, along with his trusted protégés, will be in a very strong position to decide the policy direction of China’s 11-trillion economy in the next five years.
Predicting the identities of the general secretary’s men is challenging because of China’s opaque political system. Opinion polls are not allowed by the government, nor do they matter, because ordinary Chinese citizens don’t get to vote. Standing Committee members are “elected” by the 2200-odd national party congress delegates. The delegates vote for a preselected list of candidates (historically between five and 11 people), with the number of names matching exactly the number of Standing Committee seats. The de facto process comes down to a negotiation among the leadership candidates behind closed doors — a process that has kept China watchers guessing for months.
In an effort to penetrate this arcane process, and to avoid arbitrary guesswork, we have developed an artificial intelligence (AI) system to pick up clues from the party’s mouthpiece: the People’s Daily. Known as neural network, the algorithm is analogous to the human brain. Using past links between the names of existing Standing Committee members and the articles about them in the People’s Daily, the system predicts the most likely incoming leadership team by “reading” this year’s news articles.
After much scanning over the People’s Daily, our AI system has picked out nine hopefuls (shown in order of likelihood in the table below) who will join Mr. Xi in a new Standing Committee.
One notable Standing Committee absence: Mr. Wang Qishan, China’s powerful anti-graft tsar. If confirmed, the absence of Mr. Wang may signal an important policy change in Mr. Xi’s administration: the end of a sweeping anti-corruption campaign that has punished over a million officials since 2013.
As far as the four current Standing Committee members, all except Premier Li Keqiang are over the party’s unwritten retirement age of 68. Should any of them join the new Standing Committee, it would create a new precedent and pave the way for Mr. Xi, who will be 69 at the end of the next five-year term, to stay in power for a third term.
Our list also includes Ms. Liu Yandong, currently the highest-ranked female official in the Chinese government. Ms. Liu, 71, may retire after this party congress. But should she remain and become a Standing Committee member, she would be the first female to reach China’s innermost sanctum of power.
When making the above predictions, our AI system only uses words in the People’s Daily — nothing else. Should the predictions come true, our system may provide a new window into the world of opaque Chinese politics.
Julian TszKin Chan is a senior economist with Bates White, LLC, based in Washington, DC. Weifeng Zhong is a research fellow in economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not represent the views or opinions of either organization or their other employees.
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