- Tue, 10/16/2007 - 12:00
Aileen McCabe, Asia Correspondent
CanWest News Service
Saturday, October 13, 2007
SHANGHAI - Once every five years, the Chinese Communist party plays power politics at the highest level.
On the surface, all is "harmony," as President Hu Jintao likes to say. But behind closed doors, most of the decisions that will affect China - and ultimately the world - for the next half decade are fiercely debated.
When the CCP's 17th National Congress opens in Beijing on Monday, China watchers will have Hu in their sights. The question they want answered is key to China's future. Has Hu consolidated his power sufficiently to pick his own successor?
Hu isn't slated to leave office until 2012, but few decisions of import are left to the last moment here and a candidate for succession needs to be groomed - just as Hu was, for a full decade before he took office. Deng Xiaoping had such a stranglehold on the party when he picked Jiang Zemin as his immediate successor, that he also anointed Hu to follow Jiang 10 years later.
While Jiang, 80, didn't have the clout to derail Deng's choice of Hu in 2003, he's very much a player behind the scenes now and wants a say in this succession. Opinion is divided on whether the inscrutable Hu has enough power to do his own choosing, or whether Jiang will claim a veto.
What everyone is watching for is who gets elevated to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the nine-member inner sanctum that manages day-to-day party affairs. Speculation is swirling around two likely candidates. Li Keqiang, 52, and Xi Jinping, 54, both members of the so-called "Fifth Generation" of Chinese leadership.
Mao Zedong was the First Generation. Both men, virtual unknowns outside China, are fairly colourless, middle-of-the-road politicians. Zealots and revolutionaries are not in fashion in today's China Inc.
Some suspect Xi could be a bit of a dark horse. He's what the Chinese call a "princeling," the cosseted son of one of Deng's chief lieutenants, the man who was the early architect of China's economic reforms. To add spice, Xi is also married to the popular Peng Liyuan, one of China's top folk singers. Li is party secretary in the northeastern province of Lianoning and Xi is the newly appointed party chief in Shanghai. Li is considered to be Hu's choice, while Jiang is said to favour Xi.
In the Kremlinesque world of Chinese politics, experts say the key to predicting Hu's successor will be to see which man gets the higher position on the standing committee.
During his first term in office, Hu kept a steady hand on the tiller, carefully guiding China's red-hot economy, and no one is expecting any decisions at this congress to change that. But economic openness is running so far ahead of much-needed reform in almost every other aspect of Chinese life, that there are bound to be some touchy issues on the table for debate.
Rhoda Howard-Hassmann, senior fellow and research chair in human rights at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., said she detected a few rays of light in the country's heavy-handed authoritarianism during a seminar early this month at Beijing's Communist Party School, the training ground for China's top cadre.
"My own impression was that there is a lot of internal discussion about democracy going on among the Chinese," she said. "I think some people fear loss of control, but others think there should be more progress."
Howard-Hassmann said she spent a lot of time observing the academics, law professors and students who are being groomed to be China's next generation of leaders, and remarked: "Some of the things that we (Canadians) said that would have been considered outrageous to older Communists, they were nodding agreement."
But while democracy and human rights are on the radar, Howard-Hassmann said they still aren't at the top of the agenda for the Chinese she met.
"They were more concerned about internal problems," she said, things like the yawning gap between the rich and poor and the growing rural-urban split.
Those two issues will almost certainly consume the Congress since both have the potential to upset the "harmony" Hu talks about so often. A handful of new initiatives are expected. Also on the agenda will be Taiwan's upcoming referendum on applying for a seat at the United Nations.
The Chinese government has warned it views the vote as belligerent and Taipei responded this week by holding a muscle-flexing military parade - its first in 16 years - to show off the considerable arsenal of missiles and war planes it has to defend itself.
While Chinese media did not report on the parade, the leadership certainly did not miss it and is bound to address the escalating crisis at the Congress.
Taiwan, along with continuing concern about the separatist moves it perceives in Tibet and among the minority Uyghur population, are among the party's major concerns. Still, nothing will be allowed to unduly upset the "harmony" of this Congress.
In the past few months, the government has cracked down on everything from corrupt party officials to lewd advertising. It has initiated improved safety standards for mines, stepped up food inspections and shut down factories producing substandard toys. The flurry of activity is meant to show the party is in touch with what concerns the public, but also to quash nagging complaints before they grow into major issues.
On a parallel track, the government has rounded up dissidents, tightened media censorship and Internet controls and ordered police across China to be proactive in preventing demonstrations that might "distract" foreign journalists gathered for the Congress.
Said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch: "This week we're seeing the culmination of months of targeted tightening of controls on media, the Internet, and freedom of movement for dissidents designed to impose 'stability' during the Party Congress."