Under a giant red star, China's new elite to be revealed at close of scripted congress


At some point this week, the composition of the standing committee of the politburo that runs the world’s most populous country, and its second-biggest economy, will be revealed when a group of men in blue suits walk out on stage in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Their procession at the end of the 18th Communist Party congress will reveal whether there will be seven or nine members on the decision-making elite.

Presumably they will include Xi Jinping, who looks likely to be the next top leader in China, and Li Keqiang, who will be premier.

A giant red star on the ceiling of the Great Hall will look down on the once-in-a-decade transition of power as incumbent President Hu Jintao, premier Wen Jiabao and their colleagues start to step back from the pinnacle of power.

This is what we presume will happen, although nothing is certain. While the congress has all the trappings of a parliamentary gathering, there is no genuine public debate.

All of the big decisions have either been made already or are going on behind closed doors in various hotels around the capital.

This is an event is characterised by contradictions.

The Xinhua news agency has been tweeting up a storm during the congress, a fact reported proudly on Xinhua itself, without mentioning the fact that Twitter is banned in China.

In the run-up, journalists were given a press pack, a baseball cap and a backpack.

There are news conferences, with useful information, but they contain no insight into what is actually going on or how decisions are made in China. Everything is carefully scripted and managed.

Analysts outraged

China-watchers have been examining every movement for clues, but a commentary in the Financial Times, called In Defence of How China Picks its Leaders, has prompted outrage among analysts.

Written by Canadian academic Daniel Bell, who teaches political science at Tsinghua University, and Eric Li, a Shanghai-based venture capitalist, it argues that the Chinese political system has undergone a significant change over the past three decades.

“It comes close to the best formula for governing a large country: meritocracy at the top, democracy at the bottom, with room for experimentation in between,” they write.

One person one vote is problematic, they argue, and democracy is a flawed ideal.

These arguments backing single-party rule caused a stir.

Linda Jakobson, East Asia programme director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, wrote a piece on the institute’s blog The Interpreter, calling the article An absurd defence of communist rule.

“China’s Communist Party today rules a political system characterised by nepotism and patron-client ties, rampant corruption, and privileged citizens’ outright contempt for the law,” she said.

Chinese people do not approve of the secretive manner in which the party leaders are chosen, nor do they approve of cadres being promoted based on their family background or support by powerful and corrupt mentors.

“Chinese citizens yearn to live in a political system governed by a rule of law and checks-and-balances that aim to provide transparency and accountability,” she said.

Why a meritocratic elite should have so few women is also not addressed in the piece, but there are clues in the party newspaper, the People’s Daily.

In a pictorial on its website called Beautiful scenery at 18th CPC National Congress, it shows how the “beautiful ritual girls, female reporters and delegates to the party congress become beautiful scenery during the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China”.

It is the kind of pictorial that makes the Rose of Tralee look like a Gloria Steinem reading.

Reform is a buzz word, but a core message emerging is that anyone expecting China to become more democratic in the Western sense had better think again. In his opening address, Mr Hu said the Communist Party “will never copy a Western political system”.

“We should place high importance on systemic building, give full play to the strength of the socialist political system,” he said.

The focus would be on reforming the existing political structure and, of course, “keeping to the socialist path of making political advance with Chinese characteristics”.