China’s political groups jockey for position at People's Congress
Before China opened to the world in 1978, China watching was centered in Hong Kong, with China watchers dedicated to examining every bit of information that slowly dripped out of that country. Reading transcripts of radio broadcasts and newspapers and interviewing escapees, defectors and Hong Kong residents allowed over the border to visit relatives made China watching a guessing game to some degree.
Clearly, contemporary China is still not as transparent as Westerners would like. Nevertheless, acquiring Chinese data has gotten much easier with newspapers, academic journal articles, TV documentaries and books constantly being churned out and flowing freely to other countries.
"Baidu," China's equivalent of Google, facilitates speedy investigation of Chinese affairs. Foreign academicians can do research in China and representatives of state-sponsored think tanks and retired government officials participate in international forums open to the public.
Yet complete secrecy still prevails when it comes to the National Party Congress. In fact, while it is generally believed that the NPC will convene in October, the exact date has not been made public because of internal political jockeying or is known only to a very small number of people who wish to keep the date secret to thwart public demonstrations.
The NPC, with its 2,200 delegates, meets every five years to review the direction the party is going and to appoint top Chinese leaders to both the Politburo Standing Committee and the full Politburo. When the NPC is not in session, its work is carried out by the Central Committee, whose size varies from 200 to 300 members representing the party, state and military. The PSC and Politburo are the most important decision-making bodies in China, with the smaller PSC having more clout. The size of the PSC varies but generally runs from five to nine members, while the Politburo might have 19 to 25 members.
During the first (1949-1976) and second (1976-1997) generations of political leadership after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, strong figures like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping exercised absolute control in the PSC and could pretty much rule China as they saw fit. Starting with the third generation (1989-2002) of leadership led by Jiang Zemin, Chinese leaders have been better educated; however, they have lacked the political and revolutionary pedigree of their predecessors. Consequently, they have had to rely on negotiation and persuasion to win support from other PSC and Politburo members.
Moreover, as China became more involved with the world and its economy continued to grow, decisions became too challenging for any one person to make. Groups representing divergent party, ministry, regional, political, economic and industry demands have surfaced. Decision making requires an ever-increasing array of leadership skills and a growing need to be sensitive to public opinion.
There is little doubt that both key fourth-generation leaders, Hu Jintao, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, and Wen Jiabao, premier of the People's Republic of China, will be reconfirmed for another five-year term in those offices and on the PSC. Just who else will join them on the PSC is open to question, although it seems Wu Banguo, chairman of the National People's Congress (China's parliament) Standing Committee, and a member of the "Shanghai Clique" or those remaining loyal to Jiang, will continue on the PSC, according to the August edition of the Hong Kong-based Dongxiang (Trend) magazine. Due to the growing complexity of Chinese society and the historical difficulty in governing such a highly populated large area, there's reason to believe that the new PSC and Politburo will represent a greater balance of interests.
Creating that balance is the greatest challenge facing Hu Jintao's consolidation of power at the NPC. Hu's predecessor Jiang Zemin focused his energies on building the economy of China's East Coast. To do so, he appointed those loyal to him to the PSC, Politburo, and as party provincial first secretaries and governors. Hu and Wen have tried to slow China's economic growth while spreading its wealth more evenly by developing poorer Western China, pumping new economic life into Northeastern China and fashioning themselves as the guardians of those economically left behind.
Hu and his supporters are known as the "Communist Youth League of China Faction" because they were all politically reared during service with the CYL. They think they would be more successful if the SC were replaced by those who share Hu's views. Yet the SC still has influence, and rarely in Chinese history have those with power easily stepped aside.
Compounding the complications in creating a new balance is the animosity that emerged between Jiang and Hu at the end of the 16th Congress in 2002. Hu outmaneuvered Jiang by amassing more support in his campaign to become general secretary. Jiang had supported Zeng Qinghong, a loyal longtime protege who was invaluable to him during the pinnacle of his political career.
In April, Hu incarcerated and expelled Shanghai First Secretary Chen Liangyu from the party for using Shanghai social security funds to speculate in real estate. Chen also refused to go along with policies aimed at taming the overheated economy. Hu might have felt that Chen's ouster would disband the Shanghai Clique and permanently dissipate any power Jiang might still have. It hasn't.
Once the formula for creating the balance is achieved, discussion can focus on who will succeed Hu and Wen at the 18th Congress in 2012. Likely key fifth-generation leaders could include:
» Xi Jinping was a highly successful governor of Fujian Province. He also served as First Secretary of Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces. In September, he was appointed as party first secretary of Shanghai.
» Li Keqiang won central government kudos for reforming the moribund state-owned, enterprise-dominated economy in Liaoning Province, where he serves as first secretary. Li also served as the governor of Henan Province and holds a doctorate in economics from Bejing University.
» Bo Xilai, another former governor of Liaoning Province, now is a highly successful national minister of Commerce.
Both Xi and Bo's credentials are further burnished because their fathers played keyed roles in the founding of the PRC. As such, they are known as members of the "Princeling Faction," along with other party members who derive benefit from their fathers' contributions to China. Hu is reported to believe that only those with such strong familial connections to the party will make great national leaders. Yet Zeng's father also played an important role in the founding of New China, and it is anyone's guess whether he will retain his PSC seat to mollify Jiang and out of deference to his father or lose it because of his connection to Jiang, Princeling or not.
Only when the NPC has determined who will sit on the PSC and Politburo and established who will succeed Hu and Wen can reform and vital Chinese concerns be fully addressed.
And when will we know when the NPC will start? Based on past experience, probably a few days after busloads of police arrive at the Great Hall of the People, across from Tiananmen Square, and start cordoning off the area.
Bill Sharp teaches classes about the domestic and international politics of East Asia at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes a monthly commentary for the Star-Bulletin. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org