Beyond the Bubble

By Danny Zhang

Before the dust had even settled on the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the Communist Party of China began its own once-in-a-decade leadership transition last week. Since the People’s Republic of China is a one-party state, a new generation of communist leaders automatically equates to a new generation of leaders for the entire nation.

The 18th Party Congress convened in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing last Thursday, Nov. 8. The party’s outgoing general secretary and the nation’s president, Hu Jintao, delivered a progress report to 2270 delegates. Hu’s speech, lasting over an hour and a half, was both an attempt to solidify his own legacy as party leader and offer parting words of advice to the party on China’s forthcoming challenges.

“We must aim higher and work harder and continue to pursue development in a scientific way, promote social harmony and improve the people’s lives,” Hu said, echoing the rhetoric that has defined much of his administration over the last 10 years.

During this quinquennial meeting, a new slate of members have been selected to the party’s Central Committee, from which 24 members have been chosen for the Politburo, a powerful decision-making organ with tremendous control over personnel appointments and various sectors of the government and military.

In turn, the Politburo yields nine men to the Standing Committee, an elite group of leaders that essentially decides every policy question for the country. It is the membership of this group that has drawn the most speculation and anticipation. The new Standing Committee could be revealed as early as today.

Almost certainly, the country’s current vice president, Xi Jinping, will take over Hu’s position as general secretary of the Party. He is also expected to assume the country’s presidency next March and the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission sometime after that.

The current first vice premier, Li Keqiang, is expected to take over the reigns for the popular outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao. As premier of the State Council, Li will be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the government.

Beyond Xi and Li, who are already in the Standing Committee, membership in this powerful body becomes much less certain. Some experts say that the new Standing Committee will only consist of seven seats while others suggest that the selection process has been full of arm-twisting and backroom politics between factions within the party.

Some of the leading contenders for the coveted seats of the Standing Committee include current Shanghai Party chief Yu Zhengsheng, Vice-Premiers Wang Qishan and Zhang Dejiang and Organization Chief Li Yuanchao.

Leading up to the Party Congress, the government has tightened its grip on security. Dissidents have been put under increased watch. Google has been taken out of service. Retirees and security guards have been put in charge of scouting out suspicious activity. Taxi drivers have even been told to remove window cranks on their cars to prevent flyer dropping from passers-by.

If all goes well, this will constitute the second smooth leadership transition in China’s modern history. This year, China has faced several high-profile corruption scandals as well as slowing economic growth that have concerned top leaders who emphasize domestic stability. In turn, many expect the incoming leadership to face these unprecedented challenges, in addition to an inadequate social safety net for an aging population, evolving relations with the United States and demands for political reform.