x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A carefully orchestrated party in Beijing hides the status quo

The lack of transparency in the way China chooses its leadership is all about keeping the Communist Party in power.

The 18th Party Congress scheduled to start tomorrow will determine who will be the leaders of China for the next decade. But the people of China have no say in who will be selected, or even how they will be selected - not even the 80 million plus members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), even though it is their party congress.

The selection will be a closed door affair for the top echelons of the Party, where the nine members Politburo Standing Committee, 25-member Politburo and the 200-plus Central Committee, will be selected from the next level below to replenish those who will retire or are being forced to step down.

This is CCP-style "meritocracy" at work. The Party's top echelons pick their own successors.

The Communist Party is certain that this is a superior system to democratic elections, where someone who has no prior experience in running a government department, a province or a state, or even a large corporation can be chosen chief executive of the country, as happened in the United States when President Barack Obama took office in 2008. In China, long apprenticeships within the Party are meant to groom and train the next generation of leaders.

Given the CCP's confidence in the superiority of its model, why is it still so determined not to allow any degree of transparency?

Two reasons account for this. First and foremost is the reality that this is not a matter of China choosing its next generation of leaders but of the current generation of CCP leaders handing over to its next generation. The distinction here is not a matter of semantics. It reflects the basic fact that the CCP is not so much the ruling or governing political party in China - but that it owns the country.

Under the CCP, there is no scope for the country to hand power voluntarily to any other political party, institution or individual - ever.

The Party has only one mission: stay in power.

From the perspective of its top leadership, the People's Republic of China is merely the trading name for the CCP partnership. As the collective owner of China and everything therein, including its human resources, the Party's most basic concern is to ensure the next generation of leaders will be able to keep the company trading. Accountability only applies to the partners, who are the top echelons of the Party itself. Political accountability as understood in a democracy is irrelevant.

This being the case, why should the succession of the leadership be subjected to influence from anyone except the partners? Even for the 80-million Party members or aspirants to partnership, the matter is beyond them until they finally earned junior partnership as Central Committee members or senior partnership as members of the Politburo. The Politburo Standing Committee members are the managing partners.

The other reason is the Party's awareness of the fragility of its legitimacy. The collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe two decades ago revealed that Leninism as a political system was not unchallengeable, despite its previous sterling record in delivering totalitarian control.

The changes unleashed by the post-Mao reforms meant that the CCP top leadership is now acutely aware of the vulnerability of the system, which is staffed by ruthless and highly efficient rent seekers organised into power blocs within the Party. Transparency will reveal the true nature of the system and damage its legitimacy in the 21st century.

The Party's top leadership is acutely conscious of the scale of misconduct within its own ranks. The Bo Xilai saga and Premier Wen Jiabao's reported family fortune, despite his avowed determination to tackle corruption, are just recent reminders of how they conduct themselves in public as well as in private life. The intensity in the jockeying for positions in the run up to the Party Congress has been such that the Party cannot afford to let the closed door politics of succession be seen in public.

Indeed, despite the Party's vast capacity to manage information flow, it has not been able to keep the intensity and ruthlessness that mark infighting for succession completely confidential. Admittedly, this is because of deliberate leaks by those who have chosen to discredit and weaken their comrades competing for the top offices. But the need to present a united front in public remains paramount.

The Party knows the scale of public discontent, which is why the number of mass incidents of unrest per annum is now classified information. It is very conscious that a failure for the top leadership to reaffirm its will and capacity to take swift action against any challenge to the Party's monopoly of power would be seen as a signal for dissidents to rise up and mount challenges.

The leadership at the top knows they must hang together or hang separately, and yet they cannot prevent various intra-Party power blocs from struggling against each other to advance factional interests. This leaves no scope for transparency in succession politics, and even less public involvement.

The Party Congress will be a carefully choreographed event. The cast for the new leadership is meant to be agreed by now, but surprises cannot be ruled out. However, every effort will be made to disguise last minute changes as reflecting divisions within the top leadership. China's entire propaganda machine will work sleeplessly in the next week or two to ensure that.


Steve Tsang is a professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies and the director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, UK