How China Picks Its Leaders: A Chart

Explaining the People's Republic's five tiers of power


Party spokesperson Cai Mingzhao arrives for a press briefing ahead of the 18th party congress. (China Daily/Reuters)

Today marks the kickoff of China's 18th party congress, the once-per-decade political confab that has the country's biggest wigs formally appointing their next leaders in Beijing. The two men who will assume the most powerful posts in all the land will be Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. Together, they'll represent 1.3 billion people, nearly a fifth of the world's population.

China may not be a democracy in the Western sense, but like any selection process, the circle of people who actually get a say in naming Xi and Li to the presidency and premiership is remarkably small. How small, you ask?

Here below is a stripped-down graphical representation of China's complex leadership structure.


Here's how it works: the National People's Congress brings together some 2,000 delegates. Those representatives are responsible for choosing between 200 and 300 members of what's called the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Out of those, 24 ascend to the ultra-powerful Politburo, which in the past has been responsible for many of China's major decisions. But it doesn't end there. Above the politburo sits the country's highest decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). It's effectively a seven-member inner cabinet staffed by China's most powerful individuals, who themselves are drawn from the 24-member politburo.

Just as with a Western cabinet, each of the PSC's members oversees a different policy domain. Xi Jinping, who's already a sitting member on the PSC, serves as vice chairman of the Communist Party's central military commission. Every member also represents a home district. In Xi's case, it's Shanghai.

Even though they're running the country, the president and premier are formally members of the PSC, and many of the decisions it makes have to be approved consensually. That means there's likely a lot of backchannel politicking ordinary Chinese don't get to see, much less Western observers. Hu Jintao, the current president, has floated the idea of making reforms to this hierarchical process. Until they actually happen, though, illustrations like these can help us understand what's going on.