Published:  02:10 AM, 11 October 2017

Who really holds the power in China?

Who really holds the power in China? Top five leaders of China. -File photo

Unlike the gossipy, open democracies of Western societies, it is almost impossible to know who truly holds power in the opaque world of Chinese politics. The country is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, in a one-party system, making whoever occupies the highest positions in the party among the most powerful.

Power isn't just held by the politicians either -- influential businessmen and entrepreneurs, the pioneers of China's economic rise, are also fighting for a seat at the table. As Beijing gets ready for the biggest  event in China's political calendar, the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party on October 18, we polled 10 experts, asking them to pick who they thought were the top five most powerful people in China.

Their answers on who really pulls the strings were varied, and shed light on the upcoming Congress -- akin to a closed-door election when China's next generation leaders are expected to be unveiled. Here's who makes up the top five, according to the policy advisers, academics and journalists we spoke to. Li Keqiang: In theory, Premier Li is number two in China's power structure, but his influence is far from assured.

In 2012, he was appointed as the head of government in China, taking over as Premier and second only to Xi Jinping on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. "The general manager of the second largest economy in the world, he has dealt with the complex economic, social, and technological transformation of the largest country in the world," China politics expert Zhiyue Bo told CNN, who placed Li third on his list.

Ma Huateng: Living in China, there's only one app you must have on your phone -- because every other person has it.
In a country without Facebook or Twitter, WeChat is a combination of both -- and much more -- and wildly popular. The company's founder, Ma Huateng, is China's third richest man, according to Forbes, just behind Jack Ma and Dalian Wanda founder Wang Jianlin.

"He wields massive influence because of the ubiquitous use of WeChat ... Several powerful business leaders have had their wings clipped in recent years, but the technology sector has so far escaped relatively unscathed," said Tom Rafferty, China regional manager for the Economist Intelligence Unit, who ranked Ma third on his list.

Wang Qishan: Shortly after taking power in 2012, President Xi boldly announced he was going to tackle China's endemic corruption, warning both low and high-level officials, or "flies and tigers" in Chinese parlance, they would be in his sights.

For his tiger hunter, Xi chose former Beijing mayor and 2008 Olympics organizer Wang Qishan. Since then, Wang has grown to be a powerful, feared figure among Chinese officials. He's brought down his share of tigers, including the formerly untouchable security tzar Zhou Yongkang and, recently, Chongqing party secretary Sun Zhengcai, a member of China's mighty Politburo and once rumored to be a candidate to succeed Xi.

Jack Ma: On the surface, he's the flamboyant and personable former English teacher who likes to dance to Michael Jackson tunes. But Jack Ma is without a doubt one of China's most powerful people and possibly the country's most public face internationally next to President Xi.

Ma, whose Chinese name is Ma Yun, is the executive chairman and founder of Alibaba, China's powerhouse e-commerce site, as well as owning other massive online shopping platforms like Taobao. Xi Jinping: When contacted for our piece, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of history at University of California, Irvine, said he wasn't able to pick five different power players in China.

"The five most powerful people are the head of the party, the president, the commander in chief, the author of the book that gets the best display spots in the bookstores these days, and the guy the People's Daily hails as China's most astute commentator on globalization -- in other words Xi, Xi, Xi, Xi, and Xi," Wasserstrom told CNN.

China's president and, more importantly, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, analysts say Xi is already the country's most powerful leader since Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and 1990s.

-AA International Desk

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