Power is about to change hands in China, but likely impact is unknown

 

McClatchy Newspapers

If all goes according to plan, in about two weeks a small, secretive group comprising some of the world’s most powerful leaders will walk across a red carpet in downtown Beijing. The members of the Chinese Communist Party’s new politburo standing committee almost certainly will make their first public group appearance lined up and wearing uniformly dark suits, tepid smiles and dyed black hair.

As the apex of power in the globe’s second-largest economy, the committee’s decisions will affect not only the region but also much of the planet. Yet despite much informed analysis in the run-up to the once-a-decade transition in top national leadership here, the long-term intentions of that cloistered band of Communist Party leaders are anyone’s guess. The unveiling of China’s new rulers will be a reminder that nowhere else today is so much geopolitical strength combined with such thick secrecy.

Not even the size of the committee is certain. It will be either seven or nine members, depending on backroom negotiations thought to be still ongoing. Only two so far are assumed to be confirmed: Vice President Xi Jinping, 59, will be presented to the West as China’s incoming president, though his mightier title will be general secretary of the Communist Party; now-Vice Premier Li Keqiang, 57, will join him as premier.

The other members are expected to be revealed after a weeklong assembly that begins Thursday, known officially as the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. The standing committee will confront a daunting list of challenges, including:

– Corruption, which is viewed as having run rampant throughout the ranks of officialdom.

– A growing gap between the country’s privileged elite and its vast population, which is the source of deeply rooted resentment.

– Increasing worries about the possibility of a slowdown in the nation’s economy that could cut into employment. For a regime intensely preoccupied with social stability, that could spell trouble.

– Staggering environmental woes, which have been emphasized by large-scale demonstrations this year against chemical plants in local communities.

It’s far from clear that the leadership will push in major new directions, notwithstanding the festering issues. The standing committee rules by consensus, and Xi will have a hard time steering party power sharply on those or other issues. As with the other potential committee members, Xi has spent much of his life in the ranks of the Communist Party, an organization made nervous by its own historical turmoil about change that’s too big or too sudden.

“There is nothing in Xi’s background to suggest that thinking deeply about or experimenting with political reform has been a priority,” Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said in an email exchange. “Throughout his career, he seems to have been far more focused on developing the economy in a smart and rational manner.”

If there is to be transformation, many observers anticipate that it will come in the economic sphere. The entrenched power of large state-owned enterprises is widely seen as having stifled moves to diversify the economy. Breaking up their monopolies would be difficult, however, and it’s not clear to what extent the enterprises’ interests are intertwined with those of senior officials or members of their inner circles.

Western news reports this year have described staggering wealth for those connected to top Chinese leaders. The family of the politician who’s most famously positioned himself as a reformer, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, was found by a recent investigation by The New York Times to have assets worth at least $2.7 billion. China responded to that report by blocking access to the Times’ Chinese- and English-language websites.

Censors did the same to Bloomberg News’ site after it ran an analysis of Xi’s family in June that tabulated hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.

Xi is considered a possible reformer, but so was President Hu Jintao when he came into office. After a decade of the Hu administration, however, that characterization seems misguided, with domestic repression and corruption rife. Whether the same will be true for Xi remains unknown.

Many analysts point to a disconnect between what Western ears hear when Chinese leadership speaks about “reform” and what is actually meant.

“Any reformers in the Chinese context, they are not going to introduce multiparty elections. They are not going to legalize opposition parties,” said Wang Zhengxu, an expert on Chinese politics and the deputy director of the China Policy Institute at England’s University of Nottingham. “But if you talk about reformers who are willing to try local elections, who are willing to give more freedom to civil society groups, who are willing to enforce the rules to force the government officials to be more accountable, you may be able to find a few.”

Wang, speaking by phone, added that, “Their objectives are to make the government work better, not to reduce the monopoly of power of the party.”

Economy, at the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed to two candidates whose inclusion might signal desire for political reform: Wang Yang, the 57-year-old party secretary of coastal Guangdong province, and Li Yuanchao, 61, who heads the party’s organization department.

On Friday, a prominent Hong Kong newspaper reported that neither man was on the current list, although it said that with less than two weeks to go there could be last-minute changes.

“Conservatives appear poised to dominate the Communist Party’s new leadership as furious horse trading continues,” said the article in the South China Morning Post.

The Post noted that five of those in its probable lineup for the standing committee will have reached the targeted retirement age of 68 at the next party congress in five years, when Xi and Li will remain but others may be shuffled.

Beyond the individuals at hand, the broader structure of the Chinese Communist Party, which in many ways still resembles that of the defunct Soviet Union, brings with it a political and bureaucratic inertia that analysts say would be hard to shift.

“Changing that in a meaningful political way is way beyond the capabilities of a Xi Jinping, Wen Jiabao or whoever else is at the top,” said Sam Crane, a professor at Williams College in Massachusetts who specializes in the study of political power in China and ancient Chinese political philosophy.

Given the operatic nature of Chinese politics this year, it’s difficult to forecast what, exactly, the landscape will look like going forward.

A Chinese politician who was once a top contender for the standing committee, Bo Xilai, now awaits formal indictment for as-yet-unnamed charges. He’s been accused by the party, via state media, of abusing official power, receiving “huge” bribes and maintaining “improper sexual relationships with a number of women.” His wife was sentenced in August to death with reprieve for the murder of a British businessman.

The downfall of Bo, the scion of a famous party leader, doubtless enflamed factional jockeying over who’ll-get-what. The same is probably true for the cover-up of a car crash that reportedly killed the son of a top ally of President Hu. In that March accident, the aide’s son was said to be driving a black Ferrari that slammed into a wall, killing him and seriously injuring two female passengers who were allegedly in various stages of undress at the time.

Amid the considerable confusion, 86-year-old former President Jiang Zemin has been appearing in public of late, a development that observers take as a sign that he’s become heavily involved in brokering deals over the standing committee slots. Just last year, there were rampant rumors that Jiang had died or fallen into a vegetative state.

And there are lingering questions about why Xi disappeared for two weeks in September. Few are counting on an answer by the time he and the rest of the standing committee are introduced later this month.

Email: tlasseter@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @tomlasseter

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