Congress to open amid weak growth and continued unrest
Some 2,300 delegates from municipalities, autonomous regions and provinces all over China meet in Beijing on Thursday as the country begins its once-in-a-decade leadership transition at the Communist Party’s 18th National Congress.
Security is tight – kitchen knives have been taken off shop shelves, racing pigeons are confined to their lofts and the window controls have been removed from passenger seats in taxis across the city to stop people furtively passing out dissenting messages from the back seat.
At the congress, Xi Jinping, who visited Ireland in February, is expected to replace Hu Jintao as general secretary of the party that has ruled China since 1949. Li Keqiang is set to succeed Wen Jiabao as premier.
The congress will see a transition from the current generation of technocrats – all nine members of the all-powerful standing committee are engineers – who have overseen the last decade in China, to a new fifth generation of leaders.
Many are “Red Princelings”, the Communist equivalent of blue-bloods. Xi Jinping’s father Xi Zhongxun was a revolutionary leader and former vice- premier.
While the party will put on a unified face during the congress, the last few weeks have seen fierce jostling for power between the ruling factions, between the princelings and the cadres linked to the Communist Youth League, which is President Hu’s power base.
The fifth generation of leaders will have a raft of knotty problems to deal with. They inherit the weakest economic growth since 1999, with expansion seen at 7.7 per cent this year. They will also have to deal with rising unrest over land grabs and corruption and the challenges of an ageing population.
The event takes place against a backdrop of fraught relations with Japan over the contested islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyutai in China.
One princeling who won’t be there is purged former Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai, who is embroiled in a scandal centred on the mysterious death of British businessman Neil Heywood. Yesterday, the leadership ended its latest closed-door plenum with a decision to formally expel Bo from the party, paving the way for his criminal prosecution.
Hu Deping, the son of the reform-minded late Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, has called on the leadership to embrace change. “Reforms cannot be wasted, promises cannot be abandoned,” Hu wrote in an editorial in the Economic Observer, saying the country’s current woes threatened its development and could interfere with the party’s power to govern.
Hu also said the monopoly of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) must end.
“We need to create conditions to let private enterprises enter monopoly industries, encourage fair and lawful competition, create and regulate open and fair markets,” he wrote.
The delegates represent many different interests within China, including the SOEs, the state banks, the People’s Liberation Army and other government institutions.
Their initial task will be to review the intervening five years since the last congress, then pick a 200-member central committee. This will meet and appoint the 25-member politburo, followed by the politburo standing committee, which, rumour has it, will contain seven rather than the current nine members.
This year’s congress will see nearly three-quarters of the leadership step down. Fourteen of the 25 politburo members are expected to retire, while seven of the nine on the standing committee are due to retire.
Three-quarters of the Central Military Commission, which runs the army, and a hefty slice of the state council, or cabinet, will also step down.
A major task will be to lay down policy lines. Often it revises the constitution to allow outgoing leaders to put their mark on it, a form of legacy.
The congress is expected to enshrine Hu’s Scientific Development View as a theory, alongside Mao Zedong’s Thought, Deng Xiaoping’s Theory and Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents.
Although it has not been formally announced, the congress will probably end on November 14th.