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Highly Scripted, China Moves Toward New Leaders

Nov 8, 2012
Originally published on November 8, 2012 8:31 pm

Two days after the U.S. election, another major political development is unfolding on the other side of the world. China began its once-in-a-decade transition of power on Thursday with the opening of its 18th Communist Party Congress.

With its lack of personalities or political platforms, it is almost diametrically opposed to the hurly-burly of U.S. elections. In Beijing, the message was about fighting corruption and keeping the Communist Party in power.

The Communist Party's Congress is a highly choreographed political ritual that plays out in the Great Hall of the People. The control over appearances is such that even the tea ladies moved in synchronicity, like dancers gliding across the stage as they flitted along the serried ranks of China's top leaders, during a 1 1/2 hour swansong speech by Hu Jintao, China's president and the outgoing party leader.

Emphasis On 'Cleaner' Government

Taking aim at corruption, he warned officials that political integrity is "a major political issue of great concern to the people."

"If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state," warned Hu.

In the printed version of his speech, he also warned officials to "exercise strict self-discipline and strengthen education and supervision over their family and staff."

This was a coded reference to the scandalous downfall of high-flying politician Bo Xilai, who is awaiting trial after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and possible involvement in covering up the murder of a British businessman, for which his wife is now serving a suspended death sentence.

Outside the hall, the buzzword among the 2,000-plus delegates was hope.

"The people of the whole country will unite to strive under the leaders of the great Communist Party," said delegate He Yonglin. "China's people are full of hope. China's future is full of hope."

Another delegate, Lin Liu, vowed, "We're going to build a cleaner government, with cleaner officials, cleaner politics. This is in line with people's wishes."

A Complicated Succession

China's former president, Jiang Zemin, was center stage at the party congress.

He'd been rumored dead last year. But recently, the state-run press has lauded his visits to the opera and even his singing abilities. Such a public comeback is both personal and political, with reports that he is stacking the new leadership team — the next Politburo Standing Committee — with his supporters.

That could stymie reform attempts by the man set to be the party's new leader, Xi Jinping, according to Kenneth Lieberthal, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"For these people coming in, there will be two generations of predecessors looking over their shoulders. Those generations will have cut the deals that will have put together the team that is now taking over," Lieberthal says. "This team is not Xi Jinping's team."

That team will be unveiled next week, after the close of the party congress. But it's clear the succession process is still hostage to patronage politics, says Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese politics and head of the University of Sydney's China Studies Center.

"What strikes me is, in a sense ... the Communist Party has returned to its historic template — it's a state within a state," says Brown.

"You get almost tribal politics — tribal networks — where you have people round you [that] you look after, almost like mafia politics," he says. "That's almost a complete counternarrative to the one I'm sure they would like."

Incoming Leader Remains A Mystery

Thursday was Hu Jintao's day: His successor, Xi Jinping, didn't say a single word. That, too, is according to plan. But his low profile means few know what to expect.

Lieberthal says that "for a person in Xi's position, it's frankly extremely hard to know how reformist he is, how determined he is, how tough he is."

"He's risen to the top of a very tough political system, so he's obviously no schmo," Lieberthal says. "But for what he'll actually be like, he's gotten to the top because he's very good at concealing that."

Change may be coming. There were pledges of economic reform during Thursday's speeches, with promises that incomes would double within the decade to 2020. There were also vows of political reform, with promises that intraparty democracy would be intensified and officials selected "in a democratic, open, competitive and merits-based way."

As a parting shot, Hu made sure to outline the limits of reform. Among the fuzzy pledges he made, there was one absolute: "We will never copy a Western political system," he vowed.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We begin this hour with a political milestone, not here in the U.S., but in China. Today begins a once-in-a-decade transition of power there with the opening of the 18th Party Congress in Beijing. Communist China and its next generation of leaders will no doubt figure prominently in President Obama's second-term foreign policy.

We'll have more on that in a few minutes. But first to NPR's Louisa Lim in Beijing, who reports that this political transition is being carefully managed, and the winners are already known.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: This is the Communist Party's party. It's a highly choreographed political ritual that plays out in the Great Hall of the People. The first step: a one-and-a-half hour-long swansong by outgoing party leader Hu Jintao. Taking aim at corruption, he warned officials to rein in their families, a coded warning in the year marked by the scandalous downfall of a top official, Bo Xilai, for abuse of power and corruption.

HU JINTAO: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: If we fail to handle this issue well, he said, it could prove fatal to the party and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Outside the hall, the buzzword among the 2,000-plus delegates was hope - hope for the future.

LIU LIN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: We're going to build a cleaner government, says delegate Liu Lin, with cleaner officials, cleaner politics. This is in line with people's wishes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIM: Center stage was China's former president, Jiang Zemin. He'd been rumored dead last year, but his comeback is personal and political, with reports he's stacking the new leadership team with his supporters. That could stymie reform attempts by the new leader, Xi Jinping, according to Kenneth Lieberthal from The Brookings Institution.

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: For these people coming in, there will be two generations of predecessors looking over their shoulders. Those generations will have cut the deals that will have put together the team that is now taking over. This team is not Xi Jinping's team. This team is Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, Jiang Zemin, et cetera's team, so that Xi has, first of all, a problem in getting everyone on the same page on the standing committee.

LIM: That team will be unveiled next week after the congress closes. But it's clear the succession process is still hostage to patronage politics, and that could cloud the legacy of this leadership.

KERRY BROWN: What strikes me is, in a sense, we have a situation where the Communist Party has returned to its historic template. It's a state within a state.

LIM: That's Kerry Brown from the University of Sydney.

BROWN: You get almost tribal politics or tribal kind of networks where you just have sort of people around you you look after and - almost like Mafia politics. And that's, you know, a complete counter-narrative to the one I'm sure that they would like.

LIM: This was Hu Jintao's day. His successor, Xi Jinping, didn't say a single word. That, too, is according to plan. But his low profile means few know what to expect. Here's Kenneth Lieberthal again.

LIEBERTHAL: For a person in Xi's position, it's frankly extremely hard to know how reformist he is, how determined he is, how tough he is. He has risen to the top in a very tough political system, so he's obviously no schmo. But for what he'll actually be like, he's gotten to the top because he's been very good at concealing that.

JINTAO: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Change may be coming, but its limits were outlined today. As a parting shot, Hu Jintao made sure of that. Among the fuzzy pledges he made, there was one absolute: We will never copy a Western political system, he said. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.