Months of factional fighting end in a grand Chinese spectacle

Written by Anurag Viswanath | Updated: Nov 22 2012, 07:21am hrs
Chinas grand political spectacle, the 18th National Party Congress, concluded with the fifth-generation leadership of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang leading the elite Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). In an unprecedented move, outgoing President Hu Jintao relinquished the post of Chairperson of the Central Military Commission (CMC); considered No 1 in the Chinese hierarchy, the CMC Chairperson can de jure command troops and press the nuclear button. Mao Zedong held the CMC post until his death in 1976. Deng Xiaoping retired in 1987 but relinquished the CMC post 2 years later. Jiang Zemin retired in 2002 but relinquished the CMC post in 2004. This led to two chains of command in the political system. But outgoing President Hu completed a smooth transition by also stepping down from the CMC post, although the jury is out on whether this was an altruistic move or purely the result of loss of clout. The net effect is that unlike the Indian political system, Xi is King, with institutional and operational control over both the party apparatus and the military, as Party General Secretary and President and Chairperson of the CMC.

The smiles on the faces of the new 7-member PSC, the top decision-making body of China, belied the months of frenetic and frenzied countdown, the give and take behind the scenes between factions, the swelling pressures of diverse interest groups and retired leaders who still want to rule by proxy, and, most of all, the Partys worst crisis since Tienanmen in 1989.

This came in the wake of a challenging factional divide that threatened to derail Xis chance of taking the Presidents office. The challenger to the throne was none other than the dapper Bo Xilai, the erstwhile party secretary of Chongqing, who has since been formally declared purged from the Party.

This was no run-of-the-mill crisis. Bo was no ordinary contender. Suave, charismatic and a princeling to boot, he displayed a marked propensity to engage in competitive, American style politics in a system that is still politically closed, a politics that naturally came undone. In the past, many leaders have been purged (from military commander Peng Dehuai in 1959 for criticising Mao Zedong to Zhao Ziyang in 1989 for supporting student protesters in 1989 ). Typically, purged leaders fall into two categories. There are those protgs who attempted to step out of the shadow of the paramount leader. And then there are those that Bos case typified, at the receiving end of a power struggle.

Bo was different as he played with fire, assiduously and successfully cultivating himself, and gathering a fan following in the bargain. The Party itself was in a conundrum as to how best to deal with this prodigal son. And the verdict is that the sentence is a soft one.

In stark contrast, President Xi is not your average charismatic man (and his wife has said as much). Rather, he is an amicable consensus-builder, attested by the tone of his successful maiden speech after the election. Xis amicable persona will hold him in good stead as the erstwhile hierarchy has changed from having an old-style paramount leader at the top to a team of equals. President Xis princeling background (Xis father was a top-ranking Communist Party member in the 1980s) coupled with 30 years of provincial level-experience and with an even temperament as a bonus, cuts a less hawkish figure for sure. But this is a figure more adept and flexible in building bridges within the Party (whose profile has undergone a dramatic transformation and now reflects Chinas social diversity). Despite being a one-party system, the Party is beset with clear-cut factions, which need tempering. China is also at a crossroads, absorbing and deliberating on its sudden and dramatic surge in Asia and the world, and thus the need for balance and caution has never been this pertinent. President Xi fits the bill.

Despite China not being ready and mature enough for Bo-style American politics, the fifth-generation leaders (born in the 1950s), who came of age in the churning of the chaotic Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), wear western-style dark suits and red ties, almost as if marking the closure of the good old days when Zhongshan suits (Chinas version of the Nehru jacket) ruled the roostperhaps in sync with Chinas increasingly global face and aspirations. There is also a slight shift in the PSC compositiontechnocrats have been favoured for the top echelons in the Party in the last decade or so, but there is a divergence this time round. The current PSC boasts of an older cohort (whose average age is 63 years, up from 62 years) from different professional backgrounds.

President Xi is an engineer from the crme de la crme Tsinghua University. Others on the PSC include Li Keqiang (a lawyer from Ivy league Peking University), Zhang Dejiang and Zhang Gaoli (both economists), Yu Zhengsheng (missile engineer), Liu Yunshan (political scientist) and Wang Qishan (historian). Most owe their allegiance to ex-President Jiang Zemin (1993-2003) and hail from princeling backgrounds (illustrious lineages, typically offsprings of top-ranking Communist Party members). While most of the members are pro-reforms, they are also considered politically conservative.

The Congress evoked a great deal of curiosity as the proceedings were attended by ex-President Jiang (who in a bizarre twist had been announced dead by ATV Hong Kong in 2011). It appears that not only is Jiang alive, but that his allies and protgs generously man the current PSCa move seen as checkmating outgoing President Hu Jintaos influence.

However, outgoing President Hu has ensured that his theoretical treatise scientific development be elevated and enshrined in the Party constitution, leaving an imprint of his legacy for future generations. Moreover, his power base is the populist Chinese Communist Youth league (CCYL) that is the largest faction within the Party, which may ensure that he stays afloat, albeit in the background.

Besides the CMC surprise, the minor upsets included the fact that two liberal leaders were politically axed and failed to receive a berth in the PSC. Both were outgoing President Hus allies. One, Li Yuanchao, a princeling with a CCYL background and a card-carrying liberal, is considered the biggest loser in the 18th Party Congress. The other, Wang Yang, the party secretary of Guangdong, is said to have counterbalanced Bos influence but failed to gain from Bos downfall.

As usual, women and ethnic minority members continue to be sidelined and sidelined in the top decision-making bodyclearly the antithesis of Chinas success story. The Politburo, one rung lower than the PSC, incorporated two women. One is Fujian party secretary Sun Chunlan (aged 62) and the second is the erstwhile State Councilor Liu Yandong (aged 67).

As further evidence of fresh blood being incorporated into the Politburo, Hu Chunhua, aged 49 and the party secretary of Inner Mongolia, and Sun Zhengcai, aged 49 and the party secretary of Jilin, have emerged as the frontrunners for the 19th Party and 20th Party Congress to be held in 2017-2022.

All in all, though, it was business as usual with President Xi sounding out a familiar battle-cry against graft (but at least poetically, using a classical adage from the Song dynasty), likening graft to worms breeding in decaying matter. For now, Chinas new leadership has no aces up its sleeve, what with a politically conservative line-up, and the political din and dust is just about settling down. But ultimate redemption may lie in the economic blueprint, to be released in November 2013, which will determine the China show over the next decade.

The author is a Singapore-based sinologist, currently a visiting fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. Views are personal