Continuity more pivotal than change
At the end of the week-long 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping — probably China’s president and party head for the next 10 years — led seven men on to the crimson dais of the Great Hall of the People. This chosen group will comprise the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the pinnacle of political power in the People’s Republic of China.
Xi’s elevation to party chief was on the cards but a surprise development was his immediate appointment as head of the Central Military Commission, which oversees the influential People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Outgoing party chie, Hu Jintao had been expected to continue as CMC head for two more years before handing over to Xi.
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Now Xi, who will oversee China’s security, will not have to look over his shoulder.
Behind Xi was Li Keqiang, expected to succeed Wen Jiabao as premier early next year. Li is from the “populist" political grouping, dubbed the tuanpai, which traditionally upholds the interests of farmers, migrant workers and the urban poor. Xi belongs to the “elitist" grouping, dominated by so-called princelings (descendents of powerful party elites), with careers in economic management rather than the rural areas the tuanpai focus on. The PSC has traditionally featured members of both groups, under the slogan “one party, two coalitions".
Following Li, in third place, was Zhang Dejiang, the party firefighter, sent to Chongqing to clean up after the spectacular downfall of Bo Xilai and his wife’s arrest and sentencing for murder. As the third-ranked leader, Zhang will chair the National People’s Congress, China’s nominal parliament.
Addressing the delegates, Xi identified intra-party corruption and “bureaucratism" as “severe challenges" for the party. “We must make every effort to solve these problems. The whole party must stay on full alert," said Xi.
But the PSC’s composition did little to suggest that reform was in the offing. The party’s two most prominent reformers, Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang, who were watched closely as bellwethers of party intentions, have been left out of the PSC.
A surprise winner in the behind-the-scenes jostling for control of power is former president Jiang Zemin, now 86, who was critically ill last year and written off by many as a serious power player. Four of his protégés — Zhang Dejiang; Yu Zhengsheng; Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli — have made it to the PSC, leaving him with greater power over China’s future direction than outgoing chairman Hu Jintao.
But Jiang’s protégés might remain in a majority only for the next five years. In 2017, five of the PSC members, including all four Jiang protégés, would reach retirement age. In contrast, both Hu’s allies seem set to continue after 2017.
Jiang, an unapologetic economic reformer who had brought China into the World Trade Organisation and built a strong economic relationship with the West, has apparently criticised the current fourth generation of leaders — Hu and Wen — for backtracking on economic reform and, thereby, slowing China’s growth.