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The Transfer of Power in China

Transfer of Power-the 1950s Generation Leading China amid Challenge

The leadership transition of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is expected to be finalized at the 18th National Congress scheduled in mid-October 2012. In a subtle but explicit fashion, the state media have already confirmed Vice-President Xi Jinping’s status as the next top leader. Vice-Premier Li Keqiang has emerged as another leading winner in the race for power.

Xi’s absence from public view in early September spawned many media rumors about a possible health problem and inner-party disputes. However, On September 15th, Xi Jinping made a high-profile appearance at a Beijing university that reinforced the notion that Xi’s standing as China’s next leader is unshakable.

On September 1st, in an unexpected shuffle ahead of the convention, Li Zhanshu, who has comfortable ties with both President Hu Jintao and his successor, Xi Jinping, has replaced Ling Jihua — a Hu ally –as head of the party’s powerful general office. Ling takes over the United Front Work Department which mainly deals with non-party organizations and political figures from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet. The shift is widely regarded as a sign that Xi intends to form his own trusted team heading into the power handover.

In accordance with the procedure set out in the CCP constitution, the national congress takes place every five years to elect the 350-member Central Committee. Then the new Central Committee holds its first session and decides who will sit on the 25-seat Politburo and the 9-member Politburo Standing Committee and who will be the general secretary of the Party as well. A total of 2,270 delegates, who represent over 82 million party members, will attend the congress.

Given the limit of two five-year terms for top leaders, the coming convention is seen as a once-per-decade transfer of power. The lengthy selection process for the next leaders started long before the congress will convene. Over the past months, negotiations have been quietly going on among current leaders, namely, outgoing members of the elite Politburo Standing Committee who endeavor to ensure that their allies get the seats at the highest level of the power hierarchy.

During the process, the outgoing top leader President Hu Jintao and incoming top leader Xi Jinping, in particular, play the key roles. Yet the party elders like former President Jiang Zemin also wield some influence, and recent coverage by the official media of the party elders’ whereabouts implicitly suggests the weight they may carry behind the scenes.

Nowadays, given the mechanism of collective leadership, no single senior official, even a top leader, enjoys the same supreme authority as strongman Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping did decades ago. So negotiation and compromise among the leaders from different factions are essentially a practice in making decisions about the new appointments and policy matters.

On August 6th, the top leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping, along with some other leader hopefuls, met academics and grassroots model workers at the beach resort, Beidaihe, about 180 miles east of Beijing. Beidaihe is the traditional summer destination for the party’s informal political gatherings since Mao Zedong’s time.

State media’s high-profile coverage of the event sparked wide speculation that an inner circle meeting about the appointment decisions for the party congress might be held at the beach town. A deal about nominations for the next leaders is expected to have been hammered out with a full list of candidates taken to the coming congress for endorsement. The party congress, overall, is seen as a ceremonial occasion on which the new leadership is officially approved.

Months ago, the party convention was overshadowed by speculation about a delay following the sudden downfall of Neo-Maoist leader Bo Xilai, the son of the late senior leader Bo Yibo. Bo was dismissed as Chongqing party chief and politburo member while his wife Gu Kailai was named as a suspect in the murder of a British businessman. The scandal emerged in the past spring in the wake of former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun’s escape to a US consulate to divulge details of the crime.

On August 9th in her closely watched trial, Gu confessed to killing their family associate Neil Heywood, which surprisingly wrapped up proceedings within hours. Ten days later, Gu was given a suspended death sentence. Bo Xilai is also expected to face severe punishment for his unspecified role in the case.

Authorities have kept the focus of this sensational political drama on the murder rather than on the issues of grave corruption and power wrangling for fear they could further damage the already battered reputation of the CCP. The low-key probe against Bo’s wrongdoings, together with the hasty conclusion of Gu’s trial, is considered to be a quick removal of the major hurdle to the smooth transfer of power at the coming party convention.

Early Winners Appear at the Centre of the Power Stage

State media are gearing up for coverage of the preparations for the congress. Xi Jinping, 59, is expected to take over Hu Jintao’s paramount power as party general secretary at the convention. Xi is succeeding Hu as President at the People’s Congress next March. Li Keqiang, 57, is to retain his position on the Politburo Standing Committee and to replace Wen Jiabao as premier next March. Both Xi and Li were picked five years ago by the party’s inner circle of incumbent leaders and party elders.

Apart from Xi and Li, seven other incumbent standing committee members, including President Hu, and Premier Wen, both 70, are due to retire because of the age limit of 67. Successors to retiring members are primarily selected from current politburo members who were born in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

For a while there were rumors swirling about reducing the size of the Politburo Standing Committee from nine members to seven. The reason for this would be to streamline the decision-making process. However, Professor Hu Angang, a prominent political advisor close to top leaders, asserted in early July that this decision-making body will still be maintained with nine members.

No matter which scenario plays out, the spots for front-runners on the standing committee are virtually secured. A tight race is predictably among those who are ranked lower in the power echelon or are nearing retirement age. If the seats cut from nine to seven, the competition would certainly get fierce. Besides, there is a slim chance that a dark horse could come out due to the same reason.

The next Politburo will comprise the above-mentioned elite committee members and some new faces as well. These new faces in the Politburo will include younger members who were born in the 1960s as a successor echelon. The Politburo is expected to reserve two spots for career soldiers on behalf of the military, but the elite standing committee is solely for civilian leaders.

Another crucial issue is whether Hu will hand over the key post as chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission to Xi. If Hu stayed on the job for another two years, as his predecessor Jiang Zemin did ten years ago, it would obviously bring Hu more time to exert his influence on the new leadership. In addition, growing tensions with other countries over disputed islands in the South China Sea and the East China Sea seem to provide an excuse for Hu to remain as Commander-in-Chief of China’s armed forces.

Princelings and the Youth League Faction

The makeup of the Politburo Standing Committee is likely to reflect the current political landscape that is mainly dominated by princelings, the Communist Youth League faction and other bureaucratic forces. The once-powerful Shanghai clique is fading away owing to the retirement of relevant officials and the diminishing influence of former President Jiang.

The princelings, known as “red second generation”, originally referred to the children of the founding fathers of the People’s Republic – the veterans of the Long March, the war with the Japanese and the Civil War of 1945-49. The princelings have taken key posts in the party, the government and the People’s Liberation Army since the early 1980s when Deng Xiaoping and his comrades-in-arms reinforced their political supremacy.

With a strong sense of entitlement, these red offspring take it for granted that they are the natural successors to their fathers’ cause, and that they shoulder the responsibility to keep political power in their hands. As the revolutionary generation is fading, the ranks of the princelings now include the offspring of current high-ranking cadres who grew up after Mao’s 1949 victory.

As a reserve wing of the party, the Communist Youth League had long played a secondary role until Hu Yaobang, who had been Youth League chief over ten years before, became party general secretary in the early 1980s. Since then, Youth League officials have markedly been placed on the fast-track to key positions in the bureaucratic structures.

The Youth League faction was mute for a while after Hu Yaobang’s death, which sparked off a democratic movement ending in the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Since Hu Jintao, who was Youth League boss in the mid-1980s, came to power in 2002, this political wing has significantly expanded, thus forming an influential force that could challenge the princelings and other bureaucratic groups. Most members of this faction are from ordinary families.

China proclaims that it takes a unique socialist road. In reality, political pragmatism has become a mainstream mindset among politicians, who are primarily motivated by their own economic interests rather than old-fashioned ideology or political orientation.

For party officials at any level, it is the priority to keep power and guard against any mass incidents that could otherwise jeopardize their political future as well as social stability. The rivalry among different factions is virtually a power struggle emanating from political and economic reasons or, to some extent, policy differences, even though it is often framed or camouflaged as an ideological conflict.

Back to early 1990s, when ideological quarrels broke out between what were stereotyped as “conservative hard-liners” and “open-minded reformists”, Deng Xiaoping abruptly stopped it with his famous slogan “No debate”. While in office for thirteen years, former President Jiang Zemin always made a detour using eclectic rhetoric laced with newly-invented political terms whenever such ideological debates came up.

In the face of the public question over the current policies resulting in accelerating wealth inequality and official corruption, Hu Jintao sticks to the political route set by his predecessors and responds with his well-quoted catchword, “No flip-flop”. Hu, on one hand, battles the blame from the left-leaning bloc that has a large grassroots following and, on the other; he unequivocally refuses liberal calls for any meaningful political reforms.

Among the current top leaders, Premier Wen is a lonely voice that has repeatedly embraced universal values and expressed a desire to promote some sort of reform. However, the widespread rumor that his wife is heavily involved in the diamond and gem business and his son in private equity investment has caused question over Wen’s political motives and also tarnished his public image as a clean, humble statesman. Some Maoist advocates boldly attacked Wen’s integrity and called him a hypocrite.

The incoming leaders prudently show little explicit political preference before being formally endorsed. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang adhere to the officialese of the CCP whenever they make speeches in public. As a successor to President Hu, Xi focuses on political matters such as purifying party organizations and cracking down on corruption. Similar to Premier Wen, Li is mainly concerned about economic development and social issues like employment, food safety, trade growth, etc.

New Faces of the Next Leadership

As the first winners, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang have been in the media spotlight. It is reported that Xi spent his early adulthood in an impoverished mountainous village in the northwestern province of Shaanxi. He served as secretary to the defence minister in Beijing before starting to climb up the political power structure in the early 1980s. After having been party chief in the two prosperous coastal provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang as well as in Shanghai, Xi was chosen as an heir to President Hu in 2007.

Xi’s red pedigree is considered a favor for his rise to the pinnacle of power. His father Xi Zhongxun, a veteran political commissar during wartime in northwest China, is favorably remembered for his integrity when Xi senior took sides with the purged party chief Hu Yaobang in early 1987. Xi Jinping’s wife is a popular singer affiliated with the army and their only daughter is studying at Harvard University. It is rumored that most of Xi’s siblings live overseas, including one in Canada.

Li Keqiang, a law graduate from prestigious Peking University, started his political career as Youth League cadre when Hu Jintao was his boss. Li had taken the post of party secretary first in the populous interior province of Henan and then in the industrial and mining province of Liaonin in northeast China before being selected as first vice-premier and standing committee member in 2007. His wife is a professor of English in Beijing. Li’s father was a middle-level cadre in eastern China’s Anhui province.

Other promising candidates sitting on the politburo have drawn the same intensive media attention. Li Yuanchao, head of the party’s organization department, has a close tie with Hu Jintao that dates back to the early 1980s when they worked together in the Youth League headquarters. Li had been a bureaucrat responsible for party propaganda and cultural affairs before being sent to the eastern coastal province of Jiangsu as the party secretary. Li, 62, is also a princeling, since his father was vice-mayor of Shanghai in the 1960s.

As an academic turned politician, Vice-Premier Wang Qishan, 64, overlooks China’s financial sector. He often draws media attention, especially when dealing with his foreign counterparts on international occasions. He is noted for his role in tackling tough issues. As vice premier of Guangdong province in southern China, Wang was in charge of fixing financial problems there in the late 1990s and then was appointed as vice party secretary and acting mayor of Beijing to battle SARS in the spring of 2003. Wang is a son-in-law of the late senior Vice-Premier Yao Yilin.

Already being on the politburo, the party chiefs of Guangdong province and the megacities of Chongqing, Shanghai and Tianjin, are likely to be promoted to the top governing committee.

Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang, who graduated from a North Korean university in 1980, is now Chongqing party chief after Bo Xilai was disgraced and sacked. Zhang, 66, has significantly been in the media spotlight over the past several months due to his special mission to clear up a political mess in this southwestern city. He had been party secretary of the northeastern province of Jilin and the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang.

Guangdong party chief Wang Yang, 57, aligned with Hu Jintao for a long-time, is viewed as an open-minded official. His constructive ideas often bring about both praise and criticism. The innovative approach he took in peacefully settling a mass revolt in a coastal village has earned him praise from the top leadership. Wang started climbing up the bureaucratic ladder in the interior province of Anhui before being promoted to a high-ranking state council post in Beijing. Wang was Chongqing party leader prior to Bo Xilai.

Shanghai party secretary, Yu Zhengsheng, 67, is considered a red princeling, since his late parents were high-ranking party cadres. His colourful family background is linked to such big names as Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek. He had been senior electronic engineer for more than ten years before joining a major disability charity run by the elder son of the then top leader Deng Xiaoping in 1984. Yu started his political career as party chief in coastal cities in Shangdong province. He was recalled back to Beijing as cabinet minister of construction in 1997 and then sent to the interior province of Hubei as party secretary in 2001.

Tianjin party chief Zhang Gaoli, 66, an economist by training from the coastal Fujian province, was responsible for the experimental economic development in the southern coastal city of Shenzhen and the province of Guangdong for over ten years before being promoted to party secretary and premier of the populous Shangdong province in 2001.

Liu Yunshan, 65, a school teacher originally from Inner Mongolia, is in charge of the Party’s central propaganda department. He worked as a propaganda cadre at different level in the prairie region for almost twenty years and then became the head of this powerful opinion-shaping apparatus.

Being the only female politburo member, Liu Yendong, 67, has close relationships with both the Youth League faction and the Princelings circles. She was Youth League official when Hu Jintao was her chief in the 1980s. Her father, Liu Ruilong, was vice minister of agriculture during Mao’s time. Liu’s current portfolio includes dealing with minor non-Communist political parties allowed to operate under the direction of the CCP.

Compared with old revolutionaries like Mao or Deng, the new leaders lack charismatic personalities built on the glory of the Long March. Unlike the Jiang or Hu generation who received a thorough education, the schooling of Xi and his peers was interrupted during the chaotic 1960s. However, they have some other interesting experiences that are being publicized. The humble part of their earlier rural years has been carefully unearthed and refurbished with moral elements.

The propaganda apparatus has recently launched a high-profile campaign to build grassroots images of Xi and his colleagues, by highlighting the revolutionary spirit they showed in the countryside forty years ago. Obviously, Xi and his fellows were prominent, lucky members among 12 million urban students who were forced to spend their youthful years in hinterland or frontier farms in the countryside settlement movement initiated by Mao during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution.

The Pragmatic Path is Expected to Continue

Xi Jinping and his team are coming to power at a time when the macro-environment, both at home and abroad, is fundamentally changed. Apart from the global economic downturn and rising geopolitical tensions such as the recent islands disputes with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and other neighbours; domestic issues always constitute major challenges.

As is known to all, Hu Jintao’s ten-year tenure has seen China’s remarkable rise to become the second largest economy in the world. This has also seen alarmingly deteriorating social disparities and a widespread official graft that is unprecedented in the Party’s history. This not only gives rise to public resentment and the Maoist revival, but also, more importantly, it directly threatens the legitimacy of the Communist Party.

The country faces a serious growth bottleneck. Over the past two decades, a GDP-oriented strategy has made China a global economic engine and meanwhile resulted in such over-development woes as frenzied real estate investment and contaminated environments. The pendulum swing between stimulus and belt-tightening, coupled with recent financial troubles from Europe, aggravates economic worries. The latest-released data indicates that Chinese domestic factory output, retail sales and export growth have continued to weaken in spite of the government repeatedly cutting interest rates.

A multitude of social concerns mainly stemming from wealth disparity and official corruption are further fuelling popular anger at the regime. Ordinary people are demanding real, effective solutions to fix the faults in the system as well as social problems. Moreover, increasingly loud voices are urging separation of powers, as well as the establishment of both an independent judiciary and media. The Internet, especially Tweet-like burgeoning micro-blogging, multiplies public grievances that upset the long-time sweeping censorship system and force authorities to face up to problems.

With a sense of citizenship growing among the public, activities have developed from individual petitions and small group rallies on single local issues like land disputes to much larger protests on regional matters such as environment protection. This past July, two mass demonstrations separately broke out in the southwestern province of Sichuan and the eastern province of Jiangsu to force local governments to scrap industrial projects that could otherwise contaminate the environment.

Princelings, on the other hand, place hopes on Xi and his red peers. Some of them, frustrated with the political path the party has pursued over the past two decades, advocate swinging back to the Maoist age. The ousted Chongqing, Chief Bo Xilai, is an example of a flamboyant leftist leader who used popular nostalgic feeling and discontent to orchestrate a massive Maoist revival movement in a bid for more power in the top leadership. Bo’s political opportunism aroused the elders’ bitter memories of the chaotic Cultural Revolution and subsequently set off a political backlash.

Ironically, the compelling reality is that a large portion of the nation’s wealth is now concentrated in the hands of privileged elites. For example, the wife of Bo Xilai was heavily involved in a business with a huge fortune. His extended family members amassed colossal wealth and currently control major shareholdings in listed Chinese companies. The new revelations about the scandal provide ordinary Chinese a chance to see the hypocrisy of pro-Maoist officials and the stark contrast between what they preach in public and what they really do behind the scenes.

In 2002, the people put much hope in President Hu and his team for a fresh change as new leaders came to office in the first orderly changing of the guard in more than half century under the Communist rule. The public believed new leaders could make a positive difference, in part because Hu and Premier Wen, both from ordinary families, had worked as grassroots cadres for a long time in impoverished areas before being promoted to higher positions in Beijing.

Today, most people don’t believe in official rhetoric about the harmonious society any more, nor do they feel the same enthusiasm for the convention as ten years ago. If history is any guide, the new collective leadership will continuously stick to the pragmatic route, but possibly make some sort of reforms as suggested by Hu Jintao in his recent farewell-style speeches. Still, it would be an uphill battle for Xi and his team to tackle the pressing crises inherited from their predecessors without a fundamental overhaul of the system.

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Weixin Lu
Weixin Lu is a Toronto-based freelance writer with a focus on China and East Asia issues.