BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 13:  A paramilitary police officer stand guard during the flag-lowering ceremony at the Tiananmen Square on November 13, 2012 in Beijing, China. The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) will close Wednesday morning after electing members and alternate members of a new CPC Central Committee and members of a new Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.  (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

A paramilitary police officer stand guard during the flag-lowering ceremony at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo: Feng Li

In many ways 2012 will be remembered as a year promising political change, even if it mainly reaffirmed the status quo. In the great Western democracies of France and the United States voters endorsed both change and continuity respectively. Voters in Mexico demonstrated the vitality of their democracy, while the will of the voters in Russia is unclear.

Closer to home, the people of Taiwan, Papua New Guinea, Japan and South Korea voted, mainly endorsing unchanged government. But another great change of leadership happened in 2012 without the unpredictability which arises from consulting the people. The leadership transition in China was predictable.

One of the political stories of 2012, it came without a general election or popular consultation. Nevertheless, an understanding of what happened in China's leadership in 2012 is crucial. Coming soon after the US election, coverage of the Chinese leadership transition was unprecedented.

Chinese former president Jiang Zemin (R) walks by chinese vice president Xi Jinping (L) after the closing of the 18th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 14 November 2012. The week-long Communist Party Congress will end with a transition of power to Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who will govern for the coming decade amid growing pressure for reform of the communist regime's iron-clad grip on power.            AFP PHOTO/WANG ZHAO

Chinese former president Jiang Zemin walks by Xi Jinping after the closing of the 18th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: Wang Zhao

As the new Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) marched into the East Hall of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 15 commentators tried to ascertain the new power dynamic in China.

Clearly, we were told, one group had won; the opposing group had lost. This analysis oversimplifies what is a complex state of politics in China and confuses the real significance of the leadership transition.

For only the second time in its history the CCP had managed a transition of leadership, establishing an unambiguous, yet unwritten, set of guidelines for change. Leadership change in any one-party state is difficult. Without accepted rules of behaviour, changes of leadership can quickly degenerate into conflict. This was certainly the experience of the CCP during the 1980s. This eventually led to the chaos and violence of the Tiananmen crisis of 1989.

In the wake of that calamity, the party concluded that a senior leader needed to be legitimised and entrenched with constraints on the exercise of power.

In practice this meant the senior leader would hold the offices of president, general secretary of the party and chairman of the Central Military Commission, thus leading the state, party and military. The president is limited to two five-year terms and all party leaders are required to retire after turning 70. Additionally, a clearly identified successor further tempered the power of the senior leader.

The main ambiguity in this institutionalised process is the succession to the CMC. The perception this part of the process had yet to be institutionalised was strengthened by former leader Jiang Zemin's retention of the post after he was succeeded in all other offices by Hu Jintao.

Although Hu had clearly taken on the role of chairman of the CMC, the process remained ambiguous until Jiang finally retired. This persisted in the build-up to the 18th Congress. When Xi Jinping became chairman of the CMC on the day he became general secretary, commentators and observers incorrectly ascribed this to a defeat of Hu. Such conclusions missed the point entirely: the institutionalised succession has been extended to include the CMC.

One conclusion made by commentators was that the outcomes of the 18th Congress represented a victory for Jiang Zemin and his ''faction''. It is questionable if factions exist at all within the CCP. The evidence usually presented in favour of the presence of factions and the lingering influence of former leaders centres on mutual links of geography, experience or patronage among party figures. It is difficult to identify the webs connecting the elite of Chinese politics.

In such an insular political environment, all leaders share overlapping connections. These connections do not necessarily translate into binding links, or long-term co-ordinated or co-operative action. The closest approximation to factional behaviour is limited to short-term, ad hoc coalitions formed around specific policy issues.

As for the influence of former leaders, their supposed power bases need to be critically examined. Jiang, from retirement, is only as powerful as his proteges in office and their willingness to act on his behalf. Given the complexity of issues these proteges address it is unlikely that they would jeopardise their relations with incumbent leaders to please their patron. Jiang, an elderly retiree, cannot exercise a great deal of influence or control over the succession process.

How power changes hands is an important issue facing regimes where the people play little or no role in the process. Without a democratic framework, transitions of leadership are both difficult and largely illegitimate.

The CCP has introduced a semi-institutionalised process to mitigate uncertainty in leadership change. The result is a consolidation of formal power with clear limits to the period in power. But the CCP has experienced only two such successions. Time will tell if the party is able to build upon these institutions for the long term.

>> Brendan Forde is a PhD candidate at the college of Asia & the Pacific at the Australian National University.