Smooth transition

Print edition : December 14, 2012

A VIEW OF THE CLOSING ceremony of the 18th party congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 14.-MARK RALSTON/AFP

Xi Jinping takes charge as the new general secretary of the Communist Party of China. He has to tackle many challenges ahead, from corruption and unbalanced growth to environmental concerns.

I HAVE MADE EVERYBODY wait a long time, said Xi Jinping, as he walked into the East Hall of the Great Hall of the People, the iconic Chinese Parliament building which sits on the western edge of Tiananmen Square, a few minutes before noon on Thursday, November 15. The assembled group of Chinese and foreign journalists had been waiting for four hours for a glimpse of the 59-year-old general secretary, as the Communist Party of Chinas (CPC) newly chosen Central Committee met behind closed doors to approve the selection of its Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), the elite inner circle of the party that would be tasked with leading the worlds second-largest economy for the next decade.

For months, speculation on who would comprise the partys highest authority had gripped the Chinese capital. All that was known was that Xi, the princeling son of a former Politburo member who had risen through party ranks garnering a reputation as a consensus-building, pragmatic and moderate leader, would head the PBSC, having been anointed as Hu Jintaos successor at the 17th party congress in 2007. At that congress, Xi had emerged as the surprise choice to replace Hu, who had been backing his protege, Li Keqiang. Xi was chosen as the consensus candidate, underscoring his appeal across the partys many factions and his good relations with both Hu and the influential former President, Jiang Zemin. Besides his family ties with other princelings, Xis stints in the provinces, both in the village of Liangjiahe in Shaanxi during the Cultural Revolution and later in the impoverished Hebei county of Zhengding, had burnished his credentials.

Over the past few months, who would join Xi and Li on the PBSC had become a matter of much debate among followers of party politics and was seen as an indicator of Hu Jintaos strengthor weaknessat the end of his term. The reappearance in recent months of the 86-year-old Jiang Zemin, after years of staying out of the public eye, was seen as a sure sign of his continuing influence on the negotiations ahead of the partys 18th National congress, which opened in Beijing on November 8. At the week-long congress, 2,300 or so delegates, including representatives from provincial peoples congresses and retired party leaders, selected from around 400 candidates a new Central Committee comprising 205 full members and 171 alternates (without voting rights).


Cai Mingzhao, a senior official at the Propaganda Department, said the CPC was, at this congress, looking to make a usually carefully choreographed selection process more competitive. At the previous Party congress, he said, the number of nominated candidates was 8.3 per cent greater than the available positions. The Central Committee selection, however, threw up few surprises: Xi, Li and the 10 other Politburo members below the retirement age of 68, who were seen as frontrunners for posts on the next Politburo, were all elected. The only major surprise was the failure of Commerce Minister Chen Deming, a member of the previous Central Committee, to secure a seat.

This year, the CPC also experimented with introducing intra-party elections for the 25-member Politburo, although the experiment was carried out with much secrecy, leaving its results unclear. In May, there were rumours of a straw poll being conducted among Central Committee members to choose the next Politburo. The official Xinhua News Agency confirmed those rumours in a report on November 16, which said a meeting of leading cadres in May had democratically recommended members of the Politburo and the PBSC, without providing further details.

The final selection of the seven-member PBSC, which was ratified by the 18th Central Committee in its first meeting on November 15, was along expected lines. Four officials with close ties to Jiang Zemin were selected, underscoring his continuing influence in the party. Two others were officials with ties to the Communist Youth League (CYL), where Hu Jintao has his power base. The six other members of the PBSC, led by Xi, were announced, in order of rank, as: Li (57), who will take over Wen Jiabaos role as Premier in March; Zhang Dejiang (66), the Chongqing party secretary; Yu Zhengsheng (67), the Shanghai party secretary; Liu Yunshan (65), a senior propaganda official; Wang Qishan (64), a Vice-Premier in charge of economic affairs; and Zhang Gaoli (66), the Tianjin party secretary.

Of the seven leaders, there are, remarkably, four princelingsas the relatives of former leaders of the rank of Vice-Premier or above are known. Besides Xi, whose father Xi Zhongxun was a former Politburo member and a Vice-Premier who championed economic reforms, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng and Wang Qishan are all princelings. The three leaders also share close ties with Jiang Zemin. Zhangs father, Zhang Zhiyi, was a former Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) general. Wang married the daughter of Yao Yilin, a former Vice-Premier, while Yu hails from a family with a history of political influence. Yus grandfather was a Defence Minister in the Kuomintang government, while his father, Huang Jing, was a former senior official. Yus brother, Yu Qiangsheng, was a senior official in the Ministry of State Security, who caused a major scandal when he defected to the United States in 1985 and exposed a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst as a Chinese spy. Yus close ties to the family of former leader Deng Xiaoping and to Jiang Zemin ensured his political prospects were not derailed by the scandal.

DELEGATES FROM the PLA enter the Great Hall of the People.-ALEXANDER F. YUAN/AP

The composition of the new PBSC disappointed some Chinese liberals who are pushing for faster political reforms. The CPC appears to have weighed the age of prospective candidates as a major criterion for selection, choosing leaders who were just under the retirement age of 68. This also means that five of the seven PBSC leaders, besides Xi and Li, will only serve one term, and will retire at the next congress in 2017. Two younger officials close to Hu Jintao, Li Yuanchao (62), the head of the Organisation Department, and Wang Yang (57), Guangdong party secretarywho are seen as among the most reform-minded of the next generation of leadersmissed out on a spot on the PBSC but were given positions on the Politburo. They are likely to join the top body in 2017, when they will still be under the retirement age of 68. Two scholars with party ties said the conservative outlook of the body suggested that for the next five years the PBSC was likely to continue the policies of the Hu Jintao administration and that major political or economic reforms were unlikely.

However, Xi Jinping, given his unique background as a member of the party elite and the strength of his political connections, is well-placed to push forward bold reforms; whether he will choose to do so, as he grapples with consolidating his position in the party in the first couple of years of his leadership, remains to be seen. In his first appearance as general secretary on November 15, Xi struck a sharp contrast from his predecessor, both in his mannerisms and in his language. He adopted a far less formal posture. His easy style and manner of speaking, devoid of the unwieldy political terminology that littered Hu Jintaos speeches, immediately won favour among members of the increasingly vibrant and influential online community in China. The consensus among many liberal scholars was that while the conservative composition of the PBSC was a disappointment, Xis debut was a source of some optimism. Xis opening address gave some early clue to the style of leadership he is likely to adopt. He made no references to Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Three Represents ideology promoted by Jiang Zemin, or the Scientific Outlook of Development idea introduced by Hu Jintao in his address. In an earlier speech at the party school, Xi had hit out at the emphasis on formalism that was leading to a disconnect between the party and the people. Xi used more direct language. Our people yearn for better education, more stable jobs, more income, greater social security, better medical and health care, improved housing conditions, and a better environment, Xi said. The peoples desire for a better life is what we shall fight for. He described the people of China as the real heroes.

Severe challenges

Xi spoke of the severe challenges the new leadership will face, highlighting problems of corruption, taking bribes, being out of touch with the people, and an undue emphasis on going through formalities and bureaucratism among party members. His directness, not to mention the pureness of the Mandarin language he used, devoid of any accent, won him immediate praise among many younger Chinese. One blogger observed that the post-1980s generation, which has been educated on standard Mandarin or Putonghua, would immediately relate more to Xi than they did to the heavily Anhui-accented Hu Jintao. Xi also made three references in his 10-minute address to the great renewal of the Chinese nation, suggesting that the themepopular with Chinese nationalistsmight emerge as a rallying point under his leadership as the party looks to strengthen its legitimacy against the backdrop of rising concerns on inequality and corruption. The party, Xi concluded, had every reason to be proud of its accomplishments in leading a revival of the Chinese nation. Proud, he concluded, but not complacent.

How the leadership under Xi Jinping will tackle the many challenges facing China today, from corruption and unbalanced growth to environmental concerns, remains to be seen. The Work Report presented to the 18th National congress by Hu Jintao shed some light on how the leadership under Xi will move forward. Xi told a meeting of the Politburo on November 17 that the Work Report, which is a policy document approved by the congress, had outlined a blueprint for China, under new circumstances, to complete the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects, advance the socialist modernisation and win new victory for socialism with Chinese characteristics. He called on the whole party to firmly adhere to this theme, describing the report as a political manifesto and an action guideline for the party to unite and lead people of all ethnic groups in China.

HOSTESSES DURING THE closing ceremony of the party congress.-MARK RALSTON/AFP

Among the problems highlighted by Hu in the work report were: unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable development; weak capacity for scientific and technological innovation; serious resource and environmental constraints; a marked increase in social problems; widening gaps between urban and rural areas and disparities in incomes; and problems affecting peoples interests in social security, health care, housing and the environment. Hu also stressed the dangers of rampant corruption, warning it could even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.

While Hu stressed that China would never copy a Western political system, he outlined several measures to push forward political reforms. To begin with, the proportion of community-level deputies to local peoples congresses from outside the party would be increased, he said, with priority given to workers, farmers and intellectuals. He called on leading officials to appoint officials on their merits without regard to their origins, select officials on the basis of both their moral integrity and their professional competence with priority given to the former, and promote officials who are outstanding in performance and enjoy popular support. A reference to appointing officials without regard to their origins was also included among the several amendments to the party Constitution that were approved by the congress and seen as a response to concerns over the expanding influence of princelings and blatant nepotism in government appointments. Regarding economic reforms, Hu said the underlying issue was how to strike a balance between the role of the government and that of the market. We should, he added, follow more closely the rules of the market and better play the role of the government. He announced a target of doubling the 2010 gross domestic product and per capita incomes, which would require an annual growth of 7.5 per cent in the next decade.

Chorus for reforms

In recent months, a cross section of retired Chinese leaders, party elites and scholars have called on the new leadership to take forward long-discussed political and economic reforms. The Development Research Centre, a think tank run by the State Council, or Cabinet, outlined a detailed proposal for economic reforms in a report titled China 2030, published in February. The report, written with the approval of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, the next Premier, called for overhauling the state-run sector and warned that the countrys export-driven, state investment-supported model had reached a turning point. It put forward six strategic directions, from hastening the transition to a market economy and increasing investment in innovation to boosting social security, to achieve the goal of becoming a high-income country by 2030. Chinas growth under the current model would decline gradually until 2030, the report said, making the case for breaking up state monopolies. It called for greater protection for farmers rights and expansion of social security to reduce disparities and to encourage domestic consumption as a new driver of more balanced growth.

A HOMELESS MAN sleeps on the ground as people watch a live telecast.-AP

Wu Jinglian, an economist affiliated with the Development Research Centre and a backer of market reforms, told a meeting in Beijing following the congress that the monopoly of the state sector in petroleum, telecom, railways and finance and its hold over economic resources at the expense of the private sector were unsustainable. The current growth model, he said, is unsustainable and has been built on investment that exploits resources and damages the environment. The easy access of state companies to bank credit, which small and medium enterprises were increasingly struggling to obtain, had posed an obstacle to growth, he said, while rent-seeking vested interest groups are obstructing reforms by all means. This requires the leadership, he added, to have greater political courage to overcome their obstruction. Li Jiange, who heads the China International Capital Corporation (CICC), Chinas biggest investment bank, told a conference in Beijing on November 18 that the Xi Jinping leadership would take forward market-oriented reforms by the end of 2013 to reduce government intervention and to break up state monopolies.

The Xi Jinping leadership has also faced renewed calls to take forward political reforms to increase oversight on the party, particularly in the wake of the purge of former Politburo member Bo Xilai and the sacking of Railways Minister Liu Zhijun. Both officials are to stand trial on charges of corruption and abuse of power. Cai Mingzhao, the party propaganda department official, acknowledged that both cases had profound lessons for the party. For one, both cases shed light on how entrenched corruption has become, even in the partys highest ranks, where there is no oversight.

XI JINPING, who heads the seven-member Communist Party of China Politburo Standing Committee, the nation's top decision-making body.-MARK RALSTON/AFP

Hu Deping, a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the top political advisory body, in an essay published in the Beijing-based Economic Observer newspaper on November 5, made out a detailed case for reforms to promote the rule of law and reinforce the Chinese Constitution as the ultimate political power that would regulate the power of the party. Hu, who is the son of the former CPC general secretary Hu Yaobang, represents a section of the party elite pushing for faster reforms. Xi Jinping was reported to have met with Hu Deping in the weeks before the congress. Xi Jinpings father, Xi Zhongxun, had supported Hu Yaobang, who was known for his liberal views, when he was targeted by conservatives in the late 1980s.

Some of the rights included in our Constitution have not been backed up by written laws that make sure they are guaranteed, Hu Deping wrote. In the political, economic, social, cultural and other fields there are still many cases in which the civil rights awarded by the Constitution are either damaged or disrespected and some of these cases are very serious. The existence of these problems not only harms the healthy development of the country and violates the rights of the people, it also damages both the position and the ability to govern of the Communist Party of China.

CHINA'S NEW POLITBURO STANDING COMMITTEE members Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli.-JASON LEE/REUTERS

He continued: For a state with a Constitution but in which constitutional governance is not practised, the document simply contains empty words on a sheet of paper. Our party gained political control of the state and we went from being a revolutionary party to a ruling party. We gained the support of all classes and sectors of society and the foundation of the establishment of our power lay in our ability to form a consensus among all classes behind a common goal. Who should be the first to uphold the Constitution, respect the Constitution and strive to promote the implementation of the Constitutionit should be the Communist Party of China as the long-term ruling party. The CPC, Hu said, had learnt a profound lesson from history about what happens when we as a nation disregard the Constitution, put aside the Constitution, damage the authority of the Constitution and dont rule the country in accordance with the Constitution or the law. The disaster of the Cultural Revolution was so painful, the country, the people and the party all suffered heavy losses, and one of the fundamental causes of all this turmoil was that the Constitution and laws became empty words. We need to make sure that this lesson remains etched deep in our minds.

Hu Shuli, the editor of the pro-reform Caixin magazine, said in an editorial published shortly after the congress that liberals in the party were encouraged by the Work Report delivered by Hu Jintao and the prospects of reform. In recent years, she wrote, the notion of political reform became a kind of taboo subject. The mere suggestion of it was considered risky, let alone any meaningful discourse on viable frameworks. The fact that the party congress report contains the idea sends a clear signal that there is no question about the necessity of political reform.

A FARMER ON the outskirts of Beijing on November 17. China's GDP growth slowed to 7.4 per cent in the July-September period from a year earlier, the weakest in three years. The Work Report, a policy document approved by the congress, had outlined "a blueprint for China, under new circumstances, to complete the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects, advance the socialist modernisation and win new victory for socialism with Chinese characteristics".-BLOOMBERG

What is open for discussion now is how current institutions can reform, Hu continued. People who care about political reform must spot the trends and ride the tide. Hu Jintaos proposal to increase the number of non-party representatives in the peoples congress, she said, would mark significant progress on introducing democratic processes to policymaking if introduced next year at the Parliament session in March. If we see a significant drop in the number of party cadres in the legislative arm, and then a total exit, the rubber stamp nature of the legislative body will finally become history, Hu Shuli wrote. China as a country in transition bears signs of an authoritarian society. This makes it all the more crucial to have clear checks on power. Those backing reforms are well aware that similar hopes for reforms marked the entry of Hu Jintao 10 years ago. A decade on, the partys record on taking forward economic reforms to address imbalances in growth is, at best, mixed, while moves to expand democracy in the party have all but stalled.

The road ahead for Xi Jinping will be just as challenging; yet, as he takes office, those pushing for reforms see reason for optimism. Reform is always easier said than done, wrote Hu Shuli. For anyone that cares about the country and stands on its soil, they should see opportunities in the fight for better political governance.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor