As President Barack Obama basks briefly in the glory of a second term, hundreds of Chinese leaders open a historic conclave in Beijing a couple of hours from now to appoint their new boss in eerie opacity.
Xi Jinping is expected to replace paramount leader Hu Jintao but nothing is certain until it is done. It seems that Hu’s faction was out-voted when it tried to keep Xi out of succession at meetings five years ago. Some rumors have it that Hu may promote his candidate Li Keqiang at the last minute. Currently a vice-premier, Li is expected to replace Premier Wen Jiabao, who appears tainted by corruption following a New York Times report saying his family amassed $2.7 billion in the past 10 years. Still, ousting Xi may not be necessary because as Premier, Li could remain Hu’s man in the palace.
The 18th Communist Party Congress will bring together some 2270 delegates from 40 constituencies in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Thursday (Beijing is 16 hours ahead of California) to replace Hu and six more of the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee. The Communist Party of China is thought to have over 80 million members, including all high-ranking officials and generals. The Congress meets every five years but the top leaders are changed each decade.
Despite the secrecy, the run-up to the Congress has unfolded like a tele-novela. Xi, groomed as Hu’s successor for nearly five years, suddenly disappeared from public view on 1 September and did not fully reappear for a month. That was strange for a person found on front pages almost daily, including a high profile visit to the US last February. For several years, world leaders have been lining up to meet him since almost nothing reliable is known about his views on domestic or foreign policy.
Interestingly during his absence, Xi did not attend an important session of China’s Military Commission of which he his Vice-Chairman and Hu is Chairman. Xi’s supporters were reported to have clashed with Hu’s group earlier this year because Hu wants to continue as Commission Chairman for another two years. There is precedent for that as Deng Xiaoping also continued as Commission Chairman for two years after handing over China’s reins to Hu. Reportedly, Xi’s faction wants him to have full control of the military and the civilian Politburo immediately after accession. They do not want Hu breathing down on them for another couple of years.
However, much depends on how the power plays work out in the 300-member Central Committee, which elects the paramount leader. Usually, the Committee takes care to present a façade of unity to the people and the world. So, any ouster of Xi would cause huge loss of face to the Party. On the other hand, if his recent disappearance was caused by poor health rather than political infighting, making him boss could become a problem because he may not survive his 10-year stint. That could cause another unseemly leadership struggle, further corroding people’s trust in the Communist Party.
From the few things known about Xi so far, he favors entrepreneurial and capitalist-style business but is also close to the military establishment. If his ascension results in a slant towards the military, Obama may have new problems on his hands as China would assert more power in its neighborhood, causing erosion of American leadership there. With foreign reserves of nearly $3.3 trillion, Beijing already has more money than the US to buy influence with foreign leaders.
In recent years, Chinese generals have given several signs that they fear being hemmed in by the US and its allies and suspect them of trying to slow down the growth of Chinese economic and political strength. Beijing is not hostile to the West but its leaders have urgent need for their own survival to boost the economy and improve social equity for their people. That boost will inevitably confer more wealth and power to China, which makes many in America and Europe nervous. Everybody loves Chinese markets but there is apprehension about chauvinist tendencies in Beijing.