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Safety first in China's leadership line-up

Publication Date : 31-08-2012


After the Bo Xilai scandal, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is expected to play it safer than usual with its new leadership team, observers say.

Most early reports suggest that the Politburo Standing Committee line-up to be unveiled this autumn has pretty much been decided and adventurous choices are unlikely.

Technocratic and predictable faces would dominate, with seniority and capability given a premium over "out of the box" personalities.

"After the Bo bombshell, most heavyweight players are in no mood for surprises," said Hong Kong- based observer Willy Lam.

"You won't see the equivalent of an Obama," he said, referring to the breakthrough election of Barack Obama as the United States' first black president in 2008.

The sacking of former Chongqing leader Bo and the murder conviction of his wife are believed to have dampened party leaders' appetite for bold selections.

It means certain categories of candidates, not seen for some time in the supreme decision-making body of the party, are expected to remain excluded.

Earlier talk of a first woman Standing Committee member in CCP history, for instance, has quietened in recent months.

Politburo member Liu Yandong, the top woman politician in China, was once tipped as a good bet for promotion. Most sources indicate she is no longer in the running.

Similarly, the chances of an early heir apparent - as apprentice to presumptive new Communist Party chief Xi Jinping - entering the top body are increasingly dim.

President Hu Jintao enjoyed that honour at the 14th Party Congress in 1992, when he was parachuted into the Politburo Standing Committee shortly before his 50th birthday. He understudied Jiang Zemin for a decade before taking over in 2002.

But that precedent is not expected to be repeated this year. The so-called "sixth generation" leadership candidates like Inner Mongolia chief Hu Chunhua and Jilin leader Sun Zhengcai can hope for only a seat in the 25-strong Politburo, say analysts.

The odds are also not in favour of a soldier returning to the Standing Committee. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) has been absent from the party's supreme council since 1997, when General Liu Huaqing stepped down.

Observer Zhang Jian from Peking University believes there are merits to having a military presence in the supreme council because of the "increasing social unrest in China and the PLA's vital role in CCP's strategy to deal with this unrest".

The possibility of these more marginal players being excluded has gained more credence in recent weeks because of the expected shrinkage of the new Standing Committee.

Instead of the current nine men, much talk has centred on a return to a seven-man body, which was last seen in 2002.

There are no rules on the size of the committee, but it is always an odd number so as to allow a majority vote. It has ranged from five to nine.

"The reduction...if it is true, points to the consideration to make the decision-making process more smooth and efficient and the consensus-building easier," said analyst Wang Jianwei from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

"If that is the case, by definition, it will prefer to have more like-minded people and exclude less predictable figures."

That could also see the powerful security czar portfolio booted out of the Standing Committee.

Under current chief Zhou Yongkang, who has a seat in the apex council, domestic security enjoys great power, prestige and a US$110 billion annual budget which even exceeds the PLA's.

But Zhou, 69, is believed to have irked and worried his peers by being sympathetic to Bo.

His forces were also humiliated by blind activist Chen Guangcheng's audacious escape to the US embassy in Beijing from extra-legal house arrest in April.

Zhou, who will retire in the upcoming handover, is likely to have to live with a successor with lesser powers, a stain on his legacy.


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