The Chinese Communist Party on Thursday unveiled its new top leadership with a procession of seven officials who walked across a red carpet before flashing cameras, finally drawing the curtain back after months of speculation about a group of some of the most powerful men on the globe.
The seven men, who collectively form the nation’s politburo standing committee, are the inner core of power in the world’s second-largest economy, and will shape virtually every important decision made here.
It was known beforehand that the group would be led by incoming party General Secretary Xi Jinping, who’ll become the nation’s president at a rubber stamp parliament expected to be held in March. Xi, the 59-year-old son of a prominent party leader, was tipped beforehand along with the premier-in-waiting, 57-year-old Li Keqiang.
The rest of the committee, though, had been the subject of rampant guesswork and, reportedly, fierce rivalry between interest groups.
While politics in China are notoriously hard to predict, it appeared from the lineup that Beijing is not ready to push serious political reform.
The composition of the standing committee and the murky process by which it was selected also suggested that while the Communist Party frequently speaks about “intra-party democracy,” it remains mired in politics guided by backroom deals and the politicking of influential elders and factional spats.
Should he look to push for big change, though, Xi will enjoy broader sway from the outset than did outgoing General Secretary Hu Jintao, who stepped down from his post as the head of China’s Central Military Commission. Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, lingered in the post for two years after Hu became party leader.
In his brief remarks to the press, Xi did not hint at any new political directions, but he also avoided simply repeating sections of Hu’s reports of the past week to a party congress.
“The people’s desire for a better life is what we shall fight for,” Xi said, speaking in a style noticeably more relaxed than that of Hu, as his six fellow standing committee members stood to the side.
He warned, as had Hu, that the Communist Party “faces many severe challenges.” He listed problems with corruption, bribe-taking, an undue emphasis on formality and officials “being out of touch with the people.”
More than ideological lines, the committee introduced on Thursday seemed to be drawn along factional ties – specifically, an apparent victory for those close to the Chinese leader who preceded Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin. The 86-year-old Jiang was last year rumored to have died or fallen into a vegetative state, but he recently made a series of public appearances that some speculated were a signal that he is still in the political game.
Xi Jinping himself was thought to be Jiang’s pick, versus Li Keqiang, who is closely affiliated with the same Communist Youth League that formed a power base for 69-year-old Hu.
Of the seven new standing committee members, only Li and Liu Yunshan, a 65-year-old who’d been heading the party’s propaganda department, are viewed as being strongly allied with Hu.
The others are Jiang allies: Xi, 66-year-old Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang, 67-year-old Shanghai party chief Yu Zhengsheng, 66-year-old Tianjin party chief Zhang Gaoli and 64-year-old Vice Premier Wang Qishan.
Still, in the opaque world of Chinese politics such distinctions often are blurrier than analysts might present them as being. Still, it seemed a fair assumption from the names on the list that Jiang and those around him had bettered Hu.
The intentions of Xi and Li are so far unknown, but their careers have been rooted in a Communist Party averse to sudden or dramatic shifts.
Because the standing committee is ruled by carefully calibrated consensus, whatever their agendas, it would be difficult for them to implement any bold strokes.
That model of governance has brought tremendous economic growth but also left a host of serious problems for leadership to tackle. Among them are a wide divide in income and privilege, growing unease about environmental problems, the question of how or when to tackle deeply entrenched state-owned enterprises that have slowed economic diversification, and public resentment about official corruption.
The new standing committee will probably have a bit more room to maneuver after being pruned from nine to seven seats.
The leadership under Xi is expected to seek to tamp down on tensions through a variety of social management measures, perhaps including a revision to rural land law that would help alleviate a frequent flashpoint for unrest, more closely regulating planning for projects like chemical plants that have sparked large protests, and doing further work to make the legal system fairer.
Some observers had pegged two potential candidates as bellwethers for change: Wang Yang, the 57-year-old party secretary of the coastal Guangdong Province, and Li Yuanchao, the 62-year-old head of the party’s organization department. Like Hu, both Wang and Li share Youth League ties.
While the pair are nothing like firebrands – in party circle, reform refers to structural adjustments that make it a more efficient organization – they’re considered to be more willing to contemplate change.
They were not, however, among those selected, though they’ve not been shunted out of the picture. Given the targeted retirement age of 68, the two could make the next standing committee in five years, when every member but Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will presumably leave.
Officially, the standing committee was elected by the Communist Party’s central committee, a body of 205 full members who were said to have been selected the day before by a party congress. In reality, while the central committee was reportedly voted-in during a process that involved a small amount of competition, the 25-seat politburo and its standing committee were formed by factional jockeying behind closed doors.
Foreign journalists were told to wait outside during voting for the central committee at a party congress the day before. Xinhua ran photographs of a stoic-looking Hu Jintao dropping a ballot into a red box adorned with a gold hammer and sickle. Jiang Zemin, similarly attired in a dark suit and red tie, was also pictured, staring straight into the camera as he lodged his vote.
After the press entered on Wednesday, a resolution was passed by unanimous consent to amend the Communist Party constitution to include Hu’s “Scientific Outlook on Development” – roughly, a call for pragmatic and balanced economic and social growth – into the list of guiding philosophical precepts. The resolution also mentioned “Mao Zedong Thought” five times, dashing for now any lingering hopes by reformists that the party might shift away from the legacy of a man whose policies led to the deaths of millions.
A report submitted last Thursday by Hu, which called for any political changes to be carried out under the close supervision of the party, also passed unopposed. Hu then took the stage, and made brief remarks calling on all present to “conscientiously study and implement the party’s theories.”
He concluded by asking the crowd to rise and sing The Internationale, the leftist political anthem. A band played, and soon the hall was empty.