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China's pow-wow: Expect the unexpected

Publication Date : 18-10-2012


In less than three weeks' time, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will convene its 18th national congress to announce a new generation of leaders to run the country for the next five years.

Yet aside from future party secretary Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang, whose positions have been secured, other Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) members - the supreme ruling caucus - are still unconfirmed up to today.

The positions of Xi and Li could be decided early on because they are the result of a tacit agreement on power-sharing between the princelings - descendants of the revolutionary elders - and the tuanpai, cadres from the Communist Youth League (CYL).

In China, the princelings and the CYL are the two major claimants to power. The former derived their legitimacy through blood links to the revolutionary elders while the latter's legitimacy comes from the party Constitution designating the CYL as a breeding ground for future successors. After the 1989 Tiananmen Incident and the fading out of the elders, a mechanism for these two groups to share power began to take shape.

Another thing which is pretty certain is that the future PSC will be downsized from nine to seven, a measure meant to demote the party's Political and Legal Committee (PLC), which controls the country's police and other security forces.

PSC member Zhou Yongkang, the current PLC head, is said to have colluded with disgraced Chongqing chief Bo Xilai to thwart the rise of Xi. This caused alarm in the top leadership.

As a precautionary bid, the top leadership decided to downsize the PSC so as to kick PLC members out of the PSC. Similarly, all provincial PLC members were excluded from the standing committees of the provincial party committees.

Thus the remaining five seats in the future PSC will be intensely contested. After the Beidaihe summer retreat, which was held to discuss top personnel issues, at least three different versions of the leadership line-up have been floated, each representing the interests of different factions at the top. This reflects the intensity of horse-trading.

Another major issue would be whether President Hu Jintao can cling on to his Central Military Commission (CMC) post for two more years.

During the Beidaihe retreat, there was news that Hu would relinquish all his posts at the 18th congress. Yet, late last month, former Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee Hwa said publicly that Hu would stay on as head of the CMC for a while. If this is the case, it suggests that Hu is still powerful enough to silence those who opposed his staying on.

Personnel issues aside, there is also the critical issue of whether the party's Constitution would be revised to raise the Scientific Development View (SDV), Mr Hu's political legacy, to the level of "guiding principle".

The current Constitution has already enshrined Mao Zedong's "thought", Deng Xiaoping's "theory" and Jiang Zemin's "three represents" as guiding principles. The princelings, as a group, are unwilling to accord the same status to Hu's SDV out of contempt for the CYL, their competitors for power.

Thus, up to now, the situation remains in flux.

Bao Tong, a former personal aide to disgraced party secretary Zhao Ziyang, told Hong Kong's Now TV that "last-minute changes are the rule rather than the exception", going by past experience.

From past experience too, from now until November 8, the congress' scheduled date, there are still several occasions for surprises.

Towards the end of this month, the Politburo will have to call an extended meeting to prepare for the Seventh Plenary Session of the CCP Central Committee, scheduled to be held on November 1. Between now and November, the PSC conducts weekly meetings to work out a recommended name list. Last-minute horse-trading may take place in this period.

The extended Politburo meeting will then present the recommended name list to the November plenary session. If it gets the nod, it will be presented to the 18th congress for formal adoption. Even at this final stage, changes are possible.

While the 18th congress is in session, there is still the possibility of surprises. The best example is the so-called "special motion", put forward at the party's 16th national congress in 2002 by several military heads asking Mr Jiang Zemin to stay for another two years as CMC head, even though he was to relinquish all posts that year. This caught everyone by surprise and his successor Mr Hu had no choice but to concede.

Bearing this in mind, no one should rule out surprises.


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