The big dance: A look back at the 17th Party Congress

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By Andy Scott

SHANGHAI, Oct. 31 – It came, for a time all we had to live on was breathless coverage of the inner workings of the Communist Party, and then it went. Ultimately, it was, in the words of the Daily Telegraph’s Richard Spencer, “choreographed to be as unimportant as possible.”

So what actually happened? A newly elected Politburo Standing Committee was introduced. Members include Hu Jintao, Wu Bangguo and Wen Jiabao who all retained their titles of Party Secretary and President of the PRC, chairman of the Standing Committee, and premier of the State Council respectively. Two members of the previous standing committee also retained their status, Jia Qinglin and Li Changchun. Joining them are four new members to the pinnacle of party power: Xi Jinping, Li Keqing, He Guoqiang and Zhou Yongkoang.

Of the newcomers, Xi Jinping and Li Keqing are from the so-called fifth generation of leaders – officials in the late 40s to mid-50s. Xi is also what The Jamestown Foundation calls a “princeling,” a leader who comes from the family of a former high-ranking official. Xi, the son of liberal party elder and former vice-premier Xi Zhongxun will take over the post of first-ranked secretary of the CCP Secretariat and state vice-president. In this position, he is thought to be the odds on favorite to replace Hu at the 18th Party Congress in 2012.

Li Jinping on the other hand comes from much more humble origins, growing up a farmer in Anhui farmer. He rise to the top was through the Communist Youth League (tuanpai), Hu Jintao’s most important power base. He is anticipated to be appointed as executive vice-premier; and then premier in five years. This could also change, with Xi and Li ultimately swapping places on their rise to the top.

As Chris Devonshire-Ellis pointed out last week however, one should not discount the princeling Bo Xilai, current Minister of Commerce. “Talk around the Capital Club [in Beijing] is that he will be moved instead to Communist Party Secretary of Chongqing, a powerful and politically strategic city in Western China – long the making of Chinese leaders.”

The leadership shuffle was not exactly an unknown – most China watchers had already predicted what was going to happen weeks before the congress, leaving a news media without any real news to report; world headlines weren’t always congruent – The New York Times lead with “China’s leader closes door to reform,” AFP, “Hu flags political reform in China.” The foreign media had a hard time filling their respective pages with copy. “Reuters found themselves having to churn out several stories each focusing on a few pars [paragraphs] of Hu’s address, introduced by headlines that wouldn’t surprise a jungle dweller” said Chris O’Brien of Beijing Newspeak.

What then was the point of this giant Potemkin exercise, to inspire the masses? Not really, most people were too busy making money to bother to watch anything but a cursory news story of the event (and there were plenty of them to watch). It was as the leadership planned it to be, a time to show the ordered, dignified transition of power that is, in reality, anything but.

The Jamestown Foundation points out that the selection of the new-Beijing leadership has “revealed disturbing schisms among the major factions and, in particular, President Hu Jintao’s failure to establish overriding authority five years after acceding to the country’s top job.” They go on to comment that Hu’s “apparent inability to dominate the new Politburo Standing Committee could engender either policy paralysis or an aversion toward taking risks regarding potentially destabilizing issues such as political reform.

It is also the first time two potential successors to Hu have been named. “It’s too early to say how the competition will take shape. Xi and Li could make perfect partners; likewise, it could get ugly,” says Cheng Li of the Brookings Institute. The elevation of both Xi and Li, he says, will help Hu extend his power network while undercutting any criticism of his political favoritism for tuanpai leaders – his traditional base of power.

Still, a vicious power struggle between Xi and Li, between the princelings and the tuanpai factions could happen. We will all have to wait and see if Hu is able to keep both sides from pulling themselves apart. It is something Cheng thinks is a big gamble, and given the stakes he says, a wager China’s leaders can’t afford to lose.