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.
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But Mr. Bo’s fate, and the fate of those close to him, is not the only complicating factor this year, says Wang Zhengxu, deputy director of the China Policy Institute at Nottingham University in Britain.Skip to next paragraph
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“There is a much more diverse range of regional and policy preferences” at stake, as different economic and social interest groups fight for representation at the party’s highest levels, says Professor Wang.
Unwritten rules of China’s leadership
To a certain extent, the party has institutionalized aspects of its once-in-a-decade leadership transitions. For one thing, party congresses have been held regularly every five years since 1977. Under Mao Zedong, the party went 13 years after 1956 without meeting.
Unwritten rules dictate that top officials should not serve more than two five-year terms, and that they should step down when they reach the age of 70. Straw polls among the 400 or so most senior party members and retired elders are used to gauge opinion about potential leadership candidates, though their results are kept secret.
But the process of choosing the next generation of leaders is dominated by a series of secret deliberations among small groups of top officials, each representing different factions within the party, whose horse-trading and dealmaking is hidden from everybody else’s view.
‘The system is nearing its end’
That such negotiations over the next Standing Committee appear still to be under way suggests that though “this time they will muddle through … this system is nearing its end,” says Wang. “When things become really unmanageable, they will have to change the rules,” he predicts, perhaps by making the straw polls “more binding than the consultative elections that they are now.”
For two decades after the massive demonstrations on Tiananmen Square in 1989, top party leaders “built a strong consensus that they had to show solidarity with one another because it was a matter of life and death,” says Professor Bonnin. But time has worn that consensus away. Now, worries Professor Zhang, “power struggles at the top are becoming more unprincipled.”
The results, he points out, became clear in the debacle surrounding Bo. But even when the factional rivalry is kept discreet, it is no less fierce as Mr. Xi, Hu, and former President Jiang Zemin all try to ensure places for their allies on the Standing Committee.
The danger, Zhang warns, is that if individual members of the committee are chosen in political deals sealed to end violent clashes, rather than by more considered consensus, “they will find it hard to work together.” And those that lose a policy debate in the Standing Committee might even be tempted to use their followers within the government bureaucracy to hinder the execution of the policy.
Such problems, says Liu Shanying, an analyst at the China Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, derive from the fact that “the leadership transition system is itself in transition” from the traditional strongman-dominated process to a “more multilateral competitive process.”
“We are in the middle of this transition,” he believes. “When it is completed, there will be more standard procedures” for choosing China’s leaders, which will be “more open, more transparent and more democratic.”
Just what those procedures might look like, Professor Liu says, is still unclear. For the time being, smoky backrooms are still the key setting for all that matters in Chinese politics.
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