What’s the Most Powerful Political Job in China?

Hu Jintao, 59, was named general secretary of China’s Communist Party Thursday, replacing the long-serving Jiang Zemin. He is also expected to be named president in March, when Jiang officially relinquishes that post, too. Jiang, however, will continue to helm the nation’s Central Military Commission. What do all these titles mean?

The general secretary’s job is by far the most significant of the troika, since the Communist Party is ultimately responsible for all China’s political, economic, and legal institutions. Hu is also the senior member of the nine-member (formerly seven-member) Politburo Standing Committee, an oligarchic group charged with setting all national policies. The general secretary cannot act unilaterally, but he has considerable latitude to shape the committee’s agenda and steer the party’s political philosophy—although Hu has vowed that he will not deviate from the path outlined by his predecessor.

The presidency is primarily a ceremonial post, elected by the 2,979 members of the National People’s Congress (albeit with a very firm nudge from the Communist leadership). However, it is key for a party secretary to cement his power by adding “president” to his collection of titles, as Jiang did.

The chairmanship of the military commission is the third jewel of China’s political crown, and a post from which aging figures like to continue their string-pulling ways. As was the case with his predecessor, Deng Xiaoping, the elderly Jiang’s insistence on retaining control of the world’s largest army signals that he won’t be going so gently into that good night. Though he is no longer an official member of the Politburo Standing Committee, Jiang will leverage his military command to influence the party’s direction.

Though titles are important to keeping score in Chinese politics, they rarely tell the whole story. Hua Guofeng, Mao Zedong’s hand-picked successor, garnered all three main titles subsequent to his mentor’s death. But Deng, a master of backroom power grabs, had little trouble squeezing out the weaker Hua.

Bonus Explainer: Another key job in the Chinese power game is premier, which is far less glamorous than it sounds. Unlike Western parliamentary leaders, who often double as heads of state, a Chinese premier—invariably a member of the Politburo Standing Committee—is responsible for ensuring the smooth functioning of the bureaucracy. There’s relatively scant political glory in ensuring that local officials in Lanzhou are performing up to snuff.

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Explainer thanks George Brown of Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania and Chuanyun Bao of the Monterey Institute.