Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 July 2018

China's politburo to be revealed on Thursday

There is much that we will only learn the minute the new leaders of the world's second-largest economy walk into the room.
Chinese president Hu Jintao (centre), flanked by other Chinese leaders at the opening of the 18th Communist Party Congress in Beijing.
Chinese president Hu Jintao (centre), flanked by other Chinese leaders at the opening of the 18th Communist Party Congress in Beijing.

BEIJING // On Thursday morning, a small group of communist party officials will file on to a small red podium in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and wave woodenly at the assembled press.

This will be the first time the world catches a glimpse of the new standing committee of politburo, the politicians who will run China for the next five and, in some cases, ten years.

Following precedent, the members will appear in order of seniority, dressed in somber black suits - unless there is a first-ever woman among them - sporting either a comb-over or pompadoured hair and smiling inscrutably.

Xi Jinping, the heir to outgoing Communist party secretary Hu Jintao, will lead followed by Li Keqiang, China's current vice premier and the only member of the old standing committee, other than Mr Xi, who is not stepping down.

This much we think we know.

But there is much that we will only learn the minute the new leaders of the world's second-largest economy walk into the room.

The first thing that will be obvious is the size of the committee.

Since 2002, it has had nine members but there are rumours that it will be reduced to seven to streamline the decision-making process.

The second area of interest is who will be included and what party rank and portfolio they hold.

During the past few months, the preliminary line-up is thought to have altered substantially after a series of political scandals changed the way power was distributed in the party. The most obvious example was the re-emergence of Jiang Zemin.

Mr Jiang and his economic tsar Zhu Rongji - who presided over the fastest period of Chinese economic growth since the country introduced market reform in 1979 - both cut their political teeth in Shanghai, while Mr Hu's power base is among the officials who rose through the ranks of the Communist Youth League.

Early predictions had at least one of the two so-called "reformist" candidates, Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang securing a place - a result that now seems less certain now that 86-year-old Mr Jiang has muscled in on the decision-making process.

"In simplistic terms, this a battle between the Shanghai block and the Youth league block. Neither wants to see the other side get the advantage," said Steve Tsang of Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies and Director of the China Policy Institute, Faculty of Social Sciences.

A report in Hong Kong's Singtao Daily on Sunday - as mainland newsprint cannot print predictions or leaks regarding the new committee - suggested that Mr Jiang may have won the battle, according to what the paper published claiming to be the final list of committee members.

It said that Zhang Dejiang, a Jiang ally and the man who took over from disgraced party secretary Bo Xilai in Chongqing, will be given the third slot in the standing committee with responsibility for the National People's Congress (NPC) - China's parliament and technically county's the highest-decision making body.

It reports that that fourth position will go to Yu Zhengsheng, a man whose family has been involved at the highest level of Chinese politics since before the communists took over but whose brother, a senior intelligence office in the ministry of state security, defected to the US in the eighties.

Mr Yu, the paper said, will be given the chairmanship of the People's Consultative Conference. Wang Qishan, a man with a reputation for being straight talker and getting things done, will be appointed head of the party's internal disciplinary body, to send a strong signal on corruption. It also predicted that the only ally of Mr Hu, apart from Li Keqiang, to secure a seat on the standing committee is Liu Yunshan, the head of the party's propaganda department.

While several China experts were sceptical about the finality of the list, saying that horse trading may still be going on, they agreed certain aspects of the line up rang true, such as the appointment of a conservative like Zhang Dejiang to head the NPC.

All agreed that it would be a surprise if Liu Yandong, a Hu ally and the only female contender was to get in now, given that she was always a long shot.

Similarly Wang Yang, the party secretary in the southern province of Guangdong, seems to have been written off by many. It's a blow to those who had hopes that this congress would seem an influx of younger leaders who might be willing to make the party more transparent.

"My sense is that there will be bland continuity until some sort of crisis happens. Then well know the legitimacy of these people and their political guts. I hope they surprise us," said Kerry Brown the Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.