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Talking Point

Keeping the noise down

As delegates gather, coverage of crucial Party summit is muted

In the hot seat: Xi Jinping is set for China’s top political role

Fifty-three was the final count for mentions of China or the Chinese during the three presidential debates in the United States, which was more than enough to earn both candidates a stern rebuke from the Chinese press, which was angered by the Beijing-bashing tone.

Ironically, sections of the Indian media were upset too – although less about the tone than because their country only got a single mention.

But at least the American debates gave China’s news editors something to write about, at a time when they have been much more cautious in covering their own leadership election, which is also drawing to a conclusion.

Thus while even the battle over who makes the best biscuits has been retold with gusto – the Chengdu Business Daily busied itself with news of the “cookie bake-off“ between the US candidates’ wives – the details of China’s political race have been conspicuously absent from the front pages of Chinese newspapers. Even the dates for the Party Congress – at which the new leadership team will be anointed – were only announced a few weeks ago.

Instead it has been left to the world of weibo – China’s Twitter-equivalent – to compare how the coverage of the American election has differed to its Chinese equivalent.

Xia Shang, an outspoken contributor, was one of those to compare the wealth of information available on the American contenders with the shrouded view of China’s leadership race. “We know nothing about our own candidates,” Xia complained, “not even the names of those likely to take up new positions in 10 days time.” And there was a similar frustration from Wu Jiaxiang, an academic with 300,000 weibo followers, after his own predictions for China’s top political spots were deleted from his online account. Annoyed, Wu then typed out a second post outlining the backgrounds of the US presidential candidates and for this second effort, there was no similar restriction.

“We can discuss the American presidential candidates freely but we may not comment on the leaders of our own motherland,” Wu griped.

So what actually happens in Beijing next week?

The Congress – the Party’s 18th – begins on November 8 but the new leadership team will probably be presented about a week later.

Next week’s gathering is also a Party affair and so a different event to the National People’s Congress (or NPC, see WiC6) which will meet in March next year to elect the country’s new President. Even so, the role of the NPC is largely to rubber stamp the decisions taken at the Party Congress next week, where Xi Jinping will get the nod as the new Secretary General. The position also gives Xi leading rank on the Politburo’s Standing Committee, China’s most senior decision-making body. There’s a little more speculation as to whether Xi can also expect a promotion to the chairmanship of the Party’s Central Military Commission, in effect making him commander-in-chief of the Chinese military too (in the last leadership transition this was delayed for two years, with the outgoing boss Jiang Zemin retaining this crucial role).

The others on the list for China’s top political jobs on the Politburo Standing Committee are less clear, apart from Li Keqiang, who is expected to replace Wen Jiabao, the current premier. Current vice-premier Wang Qishan is another favoured for a senior role, with Zhang Dejiang, the man who took over from the disgraced Bo Xilai in Chongqing also in contention (see WiC146). So is Wang Yang, currently Party secretary of Guangdong province. But no one knows for sure who is going to be given one of the coveted positions and there’s even speculation on how many slots will be available, with suggestions that the total could be reduced from the current nine to seven.

But aren’t such Chinese elections pre-ordained?

Although the final selection of the Standing Committee is ratified by about 370 of the Communist Party’s leading officials, its actual composition is decided primarily by its outgoing members, following bargaining for the promotion of their own favourites.

Despite this, it would be a mistake to cast Chinese politics at an elite level as wholly predictable. In fact, one of the few certainties at the top (aside from Communist Party ascendancy) is turnover, following rules adopted in the late 1990s in which officials aged 68 or older must retire from the Politburo and other top Party positions. Newly appointed members of the Politburo also need to be younger than 62 and all the top officials are limited to two five-year terms.

The idea is to prevent a return to the years of “strong man” rule under a single figure, most notably under Mao Zedong but to a lesser degree also during the paramount leadership of Deng Xiaoping. Instead the current structure is designed to seek consensus at the top, bring in fresh experience and insight, and encourage enough internal debate to absorb a wider range of views.

The result is that the Party is entrenched in power but the individuals serving within its leadership ranks less so. And inevitably, this means a clear out for many of the top positions as incumbents reach their age limits. Cheng Li at the Brookings Institution in Washington made the point earlier this year that turnover is much higher for China’s Communist elite than for members of the US Congress, and about two-thirds of the members of the Politburo, its Standing Committee, the State Council and the major state ministries will be replaced this time around.

So all change at the top?

Yes, although a complicating factor is that the individuals destined to rise to the summit of power as Party secretary and state president often seem to be identified well in advance of their final promotion. Hu and Xi ascents to the top job were telegraphed well in advance, for instance. Contrast that to Obama and Romney, neither of whom will know for sure on election day next week who will win the White House.

The other irony is that a process designed to encourage stability and consensus for the wider handover of power in China also lays the ground for frantic bursts of infighting – especially so in the period leading up to the transition.

The retirement rules have also created a large pool of senior figures, all of whom have been required to step down from office. But that doesn’t mean they are all ready to leave the scene completely, and the former bosses provide an element of continuity to the behind-the-scenes activity, creating factions.

In this context, recent references to former president Jiang Zemin in the Chinese media have been taken as further evidence that he is still pulling some of the strings in the leadership process.

On the face of it, the coverage has hardly been jaw-dropping (among its own stories on Jiang this week, the People’s Daily mentioned praise for the former leader’s memory of the songs of his youth). But the Sinologists say we need to read much more into it, with one take that Jiang is being presented as a calming presence. “The involvement of elders is seen by the Party as a stabilising rather than destabilising factor since the psychological factor of continuity rather than radical change is much more comforting,” John Lee of the University of Sydney, assured Bloomberg.

An alternative view is that Jiang is politicking furiously, as a countervailing influence to his long-term rival Hu Jintao, the man who replaced him. If so, he shows impressive longevity for an 86 year-old (and especially for a man whose death was announced erroneously by a Hong Kong TV channel last year) with the implication that his advanced years haven’t dulled his political pull. ­

Of course, with Jiang still keen to influence events (especially who sits on the Standing Committee) and Hu himself certain to have a serious say, some Sinologists say these once-in-a-decade transitions are less about sweeping change than recalibrations of power bases.

All the same, the internal debate has been more vigorous this year?

In the conventional view, Chinese politics ebbs and flows according to the vitality of the three main factions. The ‘princelings’, or children of the first generation of Party leaders, form one group, often in loose alignment with the ‘Shanghai clique’, a second faction led originally by Jiang but featuring some of those who rose to power by governing China’s most economically advanced provinces.

Both these groups are said to favour policies that push for economic growth, as well as wider engagement with the international economy. Up against them are those who have risen to power through roles in the Communist Youth League, like Hu Jintao. These leaders have often spent more of their careers working in the poorer provinces and want more emphasis on policies that address problems such as income equality, bringing the inland provinces closer to their coastal peers in economic development.

Complicating matters further are interest groups in the military, as well as the increasing sway of provincial-level chiefs and the state’s industrial fiefs. To a certain extent, these support bases can operate like American swing states (though they receive substantially less media coverage as to their voting preferences). Indeed, even identifying who belongs to which faction isn’t always straightforward. Equally, assignation as a ‘conservative’ or a ‘reformer’ can depend on the particular issue in question rather than suggesting a worldview regarded as generally progressive, or the opposite.

This particular transition has also needed to absorb the aftershocks of the fall of Bo Xilai, a princeling who daubed his personal ambitions with a heady tinge of Maoist populism. Bo was kicked out of the Party late last month on various accusations of corruption and abuse of power. But his demise has had a dramatic effect, not only by reigniting a sense of nostalgia among the remaining members of China’s hard-left but also in dislodging some of the personal pacts negotiated over years of political horsetrading.

Bo’s isn’t the only family mired in scandal. Western media reports also indicate that Ling Jihua, a close ally of Hu Jintao who had prospects of his own for Politburo promotion, is now struggling to climb the pecking order after his son was killed in a high-speed Ferrari crash in March (see WiC151 for a mention of the incident).

The allegation is that Ling tried to cover up the accident and that his opponents have used the case to undermine his claim to higher office, as well as to weaken some of Hu’s position.

Further, Bo’s ousting has drawn attention to the family affairs of the political elite in general, some of whom seem to have been cashing in on well-connected relatives. In the summer, a Bloomberg investigation looked closely at the finances of some of the relatives of Xi Jinping himself, even though the report said there was no indication of wrongdoing by him or his immediate family.

Last month the New York Times published a similar investigation into family members close to Wen Jiabao, the current prime minister. Lawyers for Wen’s family have since taken the unusual step of denying the claims publicly.

Of course, the same coverage has failed to find its way directly into China’s domestic media. But the reports cannot have helped to soothe a febrile political mood before next week’s Congress, as rivals look for advantage wherever they can find it.

Some of that tension surfaces in odd measures, like the news this week that the taxis in Beijing have had their window handles removed.

Why would taxis in the capital now have to stay airtight? The Global Times, seeking to dampen the inevitable speculation, inadvertently stirred the pot by making reference to passengers who had thrown leaflets with “adverse information” out of their taxi windows.

Yang Rui, a television host from CCTV best known for his forthright defence of Chinese sensibilities, also alluded to local jitters last week, in his case after a futile shopping trip for cutlery: “I looked everywhere for a fruit knife, but I failed. So I asked the clerk and he said ‘All knives are off the shelf before the 18th Party Congress.’”

Yang is not alone. Other internet postings were reporting sales bans in Beijing on a range of items from remote control airplanes through to pencil sharpeners. It was a level of caution that led Ma Yong, a professor at the Chinese Social Science Academy, to question whether the clampdown was really necessary. “These kind of meetings have been held seventeen times over more than ninety years, under a variety of circumstances,” Ma claimed. “Is there any need for such a degree of sensitivity? Why not treat it as normal?”

At least we know who the new leader will be…

Yes. Xi Jinping – who is widely expected to prove a more animated boss than current leader Hu, who often comes across as a bit robotic.

We’ll have to wait longer to find out more about Xi’s vision for his period in office, as new leaderships usually take their time to outline their own agenda. Eventually a policy programme appears, detailed under a catchy theme, like Jiang’s ‘Three Represents’ or Hu’s ‘Harmonious Society’. But this normally takes at least a year. The idea is to bed down the new leadership team, as well as avoid giving unnecessary offence to former leaders whom – as we have seen – can play an important role in providing support.

Of course, another reason for avoiding association with a particular policy direction is to avoid alienating potential supporters. Xi’s own quest for the Communist Party summit has clearly benefitted from being able to appeal to a variety of parties. He’s a princeling, whose father Xi Zhongxun was a key figure in Mao’s guerilla struggle (and like his father, he has made a point of cultivating military ties throughout his career too). But Xi junior has also served as Party chief of Zhejiang province, which gives market reformers hope that he will favour entrepreneurs. He’s rumoured to have more of an international outlook than his predecessors (his daughter is at Harvard and Xi spent a brief time living with an American family in Iowa: see WiC138). And more importantly, he claims an affinity with China’s poor, having been sent to work in the countryside as a teenager in the 1970s, when his father had fallen from favour.

Xi has since looked back on his seven years working in the fields with careful nostalgia, and it helps him to stand a little apart from some of the public critique of the governing class as having no grasp of the realities of ordinary life.

“Fat in January, thin in February; half-dead in March and April,” Xi has recalled of the seasonal struggle of his youth. “We say a sword is made on a grinding stone and man is forged in hardship.”

As an older man, Xi’s leadership mettle is set to be tested to the full. At a recent state-sponsored conference in Moganshan, a number of the 70 respected scholars in attendance expressed the worrying view that China was “unstable at the grass roots, dejected among the middle strata and out of control at the top,” reports The Economist.

For the past 30 years China’s technocratic leadership has grown the economy and transformed the country. But the process has produced new and unwelcome challenges: environmental problems, increased corruption and social unrest to name but a few.

In this respect running China is akin to one of those performers who spin plates, constantly moving from one issue to another. Xi will be grimly aware that he has more plates spinning than his predecessors and their number only looks likely to increase.


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