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Will China be forced to change its secretive leadership process? (+video)

Profound disarray ahead of the key Chinese Party Congress is leading to speculation that a selection process once dominated by a single strong leader will have to become more competitive.

By Staff Writer / November 5, 2012

A worker installs a propaganda banner, promoting the Communist Party Congress, outside the 700-year-old Dongyue Temple in central Beijing Nov. 5. China is set to promote two rising stars and possible future national leaders at a Communist Party Congress opening this week, one taking the old job of disgraced former highflier Bo Xilai in the country's biggest metropolis, sources said.

David Gray/REUTERS

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Beijing

Never again, after this week’s party congress, will China’s ruling Communist Party select its top members through the secretive, confusing, and mistrustful conversations in smoky back rooms that have led to such disarray this year.

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WUKAN (China) (AFP) – A year ago the villagers of Wukan in China forced their Communist Part leader to flee after what they said was years of corrupt exploitation. Now their example is adding new urgency to the party's attempts to tackle graft and the threat it poses to its legitimacy nationwide.

That is the view of Chinese analysts familiar with the inner workings of the party, who say that as proliferating interest groups complicate leadership transitions, party members are increasingly angry at being left out of the leadership selection process.

Just days before the 18th Party Congress opens on Thursday at the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square, the most important political meeting for a decade, varied rumors continue to swirl over just who will be named to the Communist Party’s top policymaking body, the Politburo Standing Committee. It is not even certain how many members the body will have.

The unprecedented confusion indicates that “the highly chaotic, black box … negotiating process carries high costs, is highly uncertain, and is very violent,” says Wu Qiang, who teaches politics at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. “They cannot go on like this.”

There was a time when outgoing Chinese leaders were strong enough to name their successors, and that put an end to any discussion. Mao Zedong named the man who took over after his death, and later, “Supreme leader” Deng Xiaoping had the authority to choose not only his own successor, but the man who succeeded that successor – the now-outgoing General Secretary Hu Jintao.

In today’s China, however, where the Standing Committee has come to rule mainly by consensus, no individual has such power.

“Deng was the last one with absolute legitimacy because of his role in the revolution,” says Michel Bonnin, a China expert at the French School for Advanced Social Science Studies. “Today, there is no one like him.”

 Behind closed doors

But the party has not developed any other convincing manner of choosing leaders and endowing them with legitimacy. “There is no voting, and no rule-based way of measuring popular opinion in the party,” points out Zhang Jian, a politics professor at Peking University. “If you don’t have a strongman or democracy, you are in a mess. Anybody can compete.”

Xi Jinping, almost certain to take the top job from Mr. Hu at the end of the week-long congress, emerged from negotiations among rival factions five years ago, but has little personal authority yet. Only one other man is staying on the Standing Committee, Li Keqiang, expected to be named premier.

Battles for the remaining five – or seven – places are still said to be raging behind closed doors, complicated by the fallout from the unprecedented public challenge to the party leadership that Bo Xilai mounted before he was brought down and expelled from the party. He is now awaiting trial, accused of corruption and involvement in a murder for which his wife is already serving a jail term. 

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