Inside China’s Smoke-Filled Room

Sorry, folks: The votes are in, and the ballots have already been counted.

Andrew Wong/Getty Images
Andrew Wong/Getty Images

HONG KONG — With its control of 1.3 billion people — and an economy expected to surpass that of the United States in the next 20 years — the Chinese Communist Party is the most powerful political machine in the world. Given that it holds a national congress only once every five years to confirm a new slate of leaders, Beijing has pulled out all the stops to prevent any mishaps.

A month before the weeklong 18th party congress starts Thursday, Nov. 8, Beijing-based dissidents such as Nobel Peace Prize nominee Hu Jia were forced to take "vacations" thousands of miles from the capital. Meanwhile, 1.4 million "volunteers" have been mobilized in Beijing to perform the function of vigilantes-cum-informants, reporting to the authorities potentially threatening characters — for example, suspicious-looking Uighurs from western China who could be separatist-inclined terrorists. Authorities have forbidden supermarkets from selling cleavers, told Beijing residents not to fly carrier pigeons or play with remote-controlled toy airplanes, and instituted a state of emergency equivalent to martial law on the district that houses the West Beijing, the mammoth military-run hotel where many of the delegates stay.

With the unprecedented security and the fact that a generational change of leadership takes place only once a decade and that political and institutional reforms have been frozen for the last two decades, one would assume that the 2,270 congress deputies would be doing something extraordinarily spectacular. After all, these delegates represent China’s 82 million party members, and they include not only mid- to senior-ranked cadres but also the cream of the intelligentsia and business world. This congress, however, seems destined to be one of the most anti-climactic party conclaves in recent memory. The delegates are supposed to read party documents and attend meetings within the confines of the well-guarded hotel; they are not supposed to meet family and friends or even talk on the phone for long periods of time so that they don’t leak state secrets, according to conversations I’ve had with past delegates.

According to the latest edition of the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution, updated in 2007, the congress is the party’s highest leadership organ, charged with discussing and making decisions on important matters of the party and state. Moreover, it selects the party’s two foremost executive bodies: the Central Committee, which decides on major policies when the congress is not in session, and the 127-member Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the country’s top anti-corruption agency. The congress also ratifies changes in the party’s constitution that the previous Central Committee may have recommended.

After the congress closes on Nov. 14, the 200 or so full members of the newly established Central Committee — which also includes 150-odd alternate, or second-tier and nonvoting, members — will select from among themselves 25 members of the ruling Politburo, as well as a more elite group for China’s supreme ruling council, the Politburo Standing Committee.

That’s what the law says, anyway.

In reality, current and former Central Committee members choose their successors and the members of the CCDI. So when the deputies meet this Thursday, much of their work will have already been done for them. They will likely be handed an all-but-final list of candidates for the 18th Central Committee, with a "margin of elimination" of 15 percent. In other words, all the delegates need do is throw out 15 percent of the least popular candidates.

President Hu Jintao has already twice been outfoxed by his old adversary, ex-president Jiang Zemin. Before Jiang retired as the party’s general secretary at the 16th congress in 2002, he was able to install several allies on the new Politburo and the Standing Committee. This year, the situation is particularly unusual — and even by Chinese standards, unruly. Contrary to the party’s constitution, the outgoing Standing Committee members, in consultation with long-retired octogenarian stalwarts such as Jiang and ex-premiers Li Peng and Zhu Rongji, have already picked their replacements, according to two senior cadres working in departments directly under the Central Committee.

In early November, Hong Kong newspapers and overseas Chinese websites published their predictions on the lineup of the new Standing Committee. The list is the same as what my Beijing sources say (and the overseas Chinese websites correctly predicted the identities of the Standing Committee members in 2007): Vice President Xi Jinping, 59; Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang, 57; vice premier and Chongqing party secretary Zhang Dejiang, 66; Shanghai party secretary Yu Zhengsheng, 67; Propaganda Department Director Liu Yunshan, 65; Vice Premier Wang Qishan, 64; and Tianjin party secretary Zhang Gaoli, 66.

According to Beijing-based sources, the titles and functions of the seven top leaders have already been confirmed. Xi, "first among equals" in the Standing Committee, will become general secretary (and in March, state president). Li will become premier. Zhang, who will be ranked third, will chair the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp legislature. Yu will be named chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s top advisory council. Liu will be named head of the Central Committee Secretariat and, later, possibly also state vice president. Zhang Gaoli will become executive vice premier (who helps run the economy) and CCDI secretary will go to Wang.

That long-retired Standing Committee members are making a phenomenal comeback this year has spawned a kind of geriatric politics with Chinese characteristics. Like former leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping before them, octogenarians such as Jiang — who officially retired eight years ago — have refused to fade into the sunset. The 86-year-old Jiang suffered a series of heart ailments last year; premature announcements of his death appeared in several Hong Kong and Japanese media in mid-2011. In the past several months, however, Jiang has not only experienced an amazing recovery but also made several high-profile appearances in the mass media. He showed up at a concert at Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts in late September. In October, he met with representatives of Shanghai Ocean University. And an October article in People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, extolled Jiang’s extraordinary memory to testify to his intellectual capabilities: Jiang can reportedly still recite the lyrics of an old pop song, "Moonlight and Shadows."

The sudden preponderance of octogenarians such as Jiang has meant that two relatively liberal cadres favored by Hu have likely failed to make the Standing Committee: Wang Yang, the charismatic party secretary of Guangdong, 57; and Li Yuanchao, the reform-minded director of the Communist Party’s powerful Organization Department, 62.

A few of the incoming Standing Committee members, moreover, are ultraconservatives. Veteran propaganda chief Liu Yunshan tightened up media and Internet censorship in the past decade; Zhang Dejiang, a graduate of Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, was the only senior cadre to have opposed the reform Jiang introduced in 2001 to allow private businessmen to join the party.

The consolation for Hu is that like Jiang he may remain chairman of the Central Military Commission — China’s equivalent of commander in chief of the armed forces — for at least two more years beyond his retirement from his other party posts at the congress. Hu’s residual clout in the People’s Liberation Army is reflected in a series of just-announced military appointments. The new chief of the general staff, Gen. Fang Fenghui, and the director of the General Political Department, Gen. Zhang Yang, are considered to be Hu’s protégés.

If Hu keeps the top military spot, Xi might not assume real power until 2014 or 2015. This combination of factors, along with Xi’s apparently risk-averse personality, means that Xi’s leadership priority will likely be maintaining the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, silencing dissent, and sustaining economic growth and employment instead of hacking out new paths for political and economic reforms.

It is possible that many of the 2,270 delegates might not be too happy about the continuation of rule of man at the expense of rule of law. Because all important deliberations of the congress will be behind closed doors, however, any show of dissent among the deputies will not see the light of day.

After all, the unprecedentedly tight web of security that China’s formidable state-security apparatus has spun around the 18th party congress is as much to ensure that trouble — what the party calls "disharmonious voices" — does not break out within the West Beijing Hotel as without.

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