China's party congress hailed by leader as stage set for successor
The rousing socialist anthem, the Internationale, rang out in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People yesterday as President Hu Jintao hailed a victorious Communist Party congress and set the stage for Xi Jinping to take over as China’s top leader.
“The congress has elected a new central committee of the party and replaced older leaders with younger ones,” said Mr Hu in a brief address, almost certainly his last as party leader, although he does not hand over the presidency until March.
And it is uncertain when he will step down as head of the People’s Liberation Army.
The 2,268 carefully vetted delegates cast their votes for the new central committee, which is basically a ruling council with about 200 full members and 170 alternate members with no voting rights. This committee will today appoint a politburo of a few dozen members and then a politburo standing committee, which is the top table of power in China. There is speculation that the standing committee might be reduced to seven members from nine, but nothing is certain.
The standing committee will then stroll out on stage at another event in the Great Hall, and by the order in which they emerge, we will know who will be the next leader of the world’s most populous country and its second biggest economy.
The incoming leadership will have to address China’s growing economic woes, by weaning the economy off exports, boosting domestic consumption and keeping a lid on growing dissent.
The party congress to decide the once-in-a-decade leadership transition began on November 8th with a work report from Mr Hu. Since then the senior cadres have been busy horse-trading behind closed doors at different venues around the city.
The main report ending the 18th congress was read out by a bureaucrat, while the past, present and future leaders of China sat motionless at a table under a giant hammer and sickle, their teacups in front of them.
Among those seated were Mr Hu’s predecessor Jiang Zemin, who last year was said to have died, but the octogenarian looked hale.
Mr Hu’s expected successor Xi Jinping sat there, and seemed strangely isolated. No one approached him as the gathering broke up, it was as if being on the cusp of such great power weighed heavily on his shoulders.
Also seated at the long table was Premier Wen Jiabao and Li Keqiang, who is expected to succeed Mr Wen next March, and various figures set to feature in the Standing Committee.
The congress has been overshadowed by the scandal involving the one-time rising star in the party ranks, Bo Xilai, who will probably face trial on corruption charges after the congress is over. His wife Gu Kailai has been jailed for her part in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
On Tiananmen Square, outside the Great Hall, soldiers with fire extinguishers stood guard in case any Tibetan activists used the opportunity of the congress to self-immolate and draw attention to their cause. There were even security officials on the No 1 bus that goes to the Great Hall.
The brass band seated in front of the press corps on an upper balcony then got to their feet as the outgoing president asked those present to sing the Internationale.