Settling China’s Future Behind Closed Doors

Weighty decisions were made at the Party plenum just concluded. The most important won’t see the light of day for some time; such was the secretiveness of the four-day meeting in Beijing of the 200 top officials who comprise the Party’s Central Committee  along with their 165 alternates. That doesn’t diminish their importance as China crosses a political and demographic Rubicon.

There was no substantive mention in the post-plenum communique of the leadership succession that will formally get underway with the Party Congress due to open on November 8th, though much of the plenum would have been spent on preparing for it. Last-minute bids for position and promotion would have been pressed, particularly among the supporting actors of those who will be elevated to the inner sanctum of the ruling elite, the Politburo’s standing committee.

The communique did mention the far from unexpected ratifications of the expulsion from Party membership of former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai and former railways minister Liu Zhijun. Both will now face a criminal trial. What must have been a key point of discussion at the plenum, though there was no mention of it in the communique, is the charges Bo will face. With what point on the spectrum from corruption to coup does the top leadership feel politically secure? The answer is a measure of how strong the factional opposition to the Hu-Wen to Xi-Li transition remains from the neo-Maoists for whom Bo was a figurehead.

Another point of discussion, we surmise, will have been the top leadership’s response to  the recent The New York Times report about the alleged wealth built up by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s family, and one a couple of months previously by Bloomberg about president assumptive Xi Jinping’s. Both articles are thought to have been fed by information from Bo’s supporters, in the hope of generating popular outrage at the self-serving corruption of the top leadership. (This Bystander can only think that it is a sign of how far out of touch the neo-Maoists are if they think most Chinese would be shocked to learn there was corruption at the highest levels; Wen’s offer to make details of his personal wealth public, or at least open to Party officials, was rejected by his colleagues, we understand, because of the precedent it would set.) Word is that there is a similar attack on President Hu Jintao in the works, though that would be the equivalent of Bo’s supporters going nuclear at this late point.

One proxy for the continuing factional struggle would have been Hu’s work report to the plenum, which would have framed the official record of the Hu-Wen years, and Xi’s outline for the ones that will succeed them. The key question beyond whether the Hu-Wen political succession to Xi-Li is secure, will be the urgency with which continued economic reform and restructuring will be embraced. The clues from the communique, such as they are, is that it will be steady as she goes:

The meeting reached consensus that the Political Bureau has held high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics and thoroughly implemented the spirits of the 17th Party Congress and its third, fourth, fifth and sixth plenums. The Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee has been guided by Deng Xiaoping Theory and the important thought of Three Represents, and thoroughly carried out the Scientific Outlook on Development.

Steady as she goes would concern this Bystander. It suggests that the political will or ability to tackle some of the most entrenched vested interests blocking reform is not yet there. Yet the beatification of the Hu-Wen years as “the golden decade” is underway, even if a subsequent decade of necessary economic rebalancing is not assured.

One crumb to fall from the table was the appointment of  two new chairmen to the Central Military Commission, former PLA-Air Force commander Xu Qiliang and the head of the PLA’s Jinan military region (large parts of eastern China) Fan Changlong. The commission provides the Party’s political oversight of the military. The two appointments strike this Bystander as Hu tightening his control over the commission, whose chairmanship will be the last of the official positions that he will retire from.

The loyalty of the military–and the security services–to Hu is critical to smooth transition to the new generation of leaders, and his continuing influence over them. His predecessor Jiang Zemin, whose faction provides much of the support for the neo-Maoists, still casts his shadow of influence over both. Hu will be working to diminish that, just as Xi will be to working to establish his own independent of Hu’s.

The plenum also approved an amendment to the Party’s constitution. The communique doesn’t say what this is beyond it being connected to the Party’s theoretical underpinnings. Speculation has it that references to Mao Zedong Thought are going. Each generation of leaders since Mao has found it irresistible to add their theoretical two-cents to the constitution to back up their political agenda. Socialism with Chinese characteristics, Deng Xiaoping Theory, Jiang’s Three Represents and Hu’s scientific outlook on development have all been enshrined into the Party’s guiding ideology over the years.

Removing Mao Zedong Thought from the canon would be a highly symbolic as well as a political strike at the neo-Maoists. It would coincide with the ascendancy of first generation of top leaders born after Mao seized power in 1949. Their formative years were spent during the Cultural Revolution, but, as we have noted before, their working political life has only known China transforming itself as a rising political and economic power. Yet, they are as pragmatically committed as their predecessors to the Party’s monopoly on power. They have been divided over whether the basis for that should be ideological or economic. This plenum and the Party Congress later this week should show how decisively they have fallen on the economic side of the divide.

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