The Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) is the most senior decision making body of the Chinese party-state. On a day to day basis the PBSC has ultimate responsibility for and administrative authority over all policy domains, and its members approve personnel appointments across China. The composition of the PBSC is thereby one of the most important indicators of the power of a General Secretary: the more loyalists he is able to place in the PBSC, the more powerful his position.
The PBSC's members are all drawn from the membership of the POLITBURO; but unlike the other members of that body, who are geographically distributed across China, the officials of the more select Standing Committee are all located in Beijing. In theory, the PBSC is subordinate to the CENTRAL COMMITTEE. Article 23 of the CPC Constitution provides that the members of the Standing Committee are elected at the plenary sessions of the Central Committee and that the PBSC shall exercise the functions and power of the Central Committee when the latter is not in session. In reality, the PBSC holds de facto power over the CENTRAL COMMITTEE, whose members usually meet only once a year and whose own membership is largely decided by negotiations between Standing Committee members and retired grandees.
The role of the Standing Committee has evolved over time. During the Mao era, the Standing Committee held little power. But its status was elevated under Deng Xiaoping, who institutionalized party structures and began concentrating administrative authority in the Standing Committee. Its functions were fully institutionalized in the tenure of Jiang Zemin when the PBSC was transformed into the all-powerful body we know today.
The number of PBSC members has also varied over time. Xi Jinping reduced the number of the Standing Committee’s members from nine to seven. In the pre-pandemic era the PBSC typically met once a week. During the pandemic this slowed to around 14 meetings a year. The agenda of these meetings is not available to the public and can only be guessed at by examining subsequent party directives.
As with other members of the POLITBURO, PBSC members are given dual responsibilities in both the party and state apparatuses. After the 20th Party Congress, the membership of the PBSC consisted of General Secretary Xi Jinping, Li Qiang, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning, Cai Qi, Deng Xuexiang, and Li Xi. All of these men are devoted Xi Jinping loyalists; securing their position in the Standing Committee was a political victory with no precedent in the Hu or Jiang eras.
Fewsmith, Joseph. 2019. Rethinking Chinese Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Heath, Timothy. 2014. China’s New Governing Party Paradigm: Political Renewal and the Pursuit of National Rejuvenation. New York: Routledge; Lawrence, Susan and Mari Y. Lee. 2021. “China’s Political System in Charts: A Snapshot Before the 20th Party Congress.” Congressional Research Service.