China’s leaders jockey for Politburo positions

Wang Qishan, China’s powerful vice-premier in charge of finance, would seem to have little in common with the immaculately coiffed, publicity-hungry politicians vying to challenge Barack Obama in next year’s presidential election.

For one thing, he spent his early 20s toiling on a communal farm after being sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution

But as America’s Republican hopefuls gear up to contest their party’s nomination, the primary season is already well underway for Mr Wang and his colleagues.

As fate would have it, China will select a crop of new leaders next year at almost exactly the same time as the US, the first time these two events have coincided in at least two decades.

Secret rivalries and political grandstanding rarely spill into the public in an authoritarian state where the Communist party goes to great lengths to present itself as a unified force working selflessly to serve the masses.

But in recent months, Mr Wang and rivals likeChongqing party secretary Bo Xilai and Guangdong secretary Wang Yang have made a series of policy pronouncements and carefully stage-managed appearances calculated to secure their power bases in the run-up to the once-in-a-decade leadership transition.

Analysts say this public jockeying is unprecedented and reflects the fact that China today lacks a strong paramount leader and relies far more on consensus building among powerful interest groups to decide who will rule the nation.

The stakes are extremely high as the victors will set the policy agenda for the world’s second-largest economy and wield enormous power over a fifth of humanity.

“For the first time in [the] party’s history you don’t have a higher power to anoint a successor,” says Victor Shih, a professor at Northwestern University and an expert in Chinese elite politics. “Since the rise of Mao, all top successions were chosen by very powerful individuals and [former paramount leader] Deng Xiaoping decided four successive general party secretaries, including [current president and party secretary] Hu Jintao.”

Current vice-president Xi Jinping is almost certain to replace Mr Hu in the top job of party general secretary late next year but for probably the first time ever his appointment was decided collectively by the party elite, rather than by a powerful dictator.

Most of the positions below him on the ruling nine-member Politburo standing committee are still up for grabs and messrs Wang, Bo and Wang are all well placed to win seats.

Wang Qishan is even seen by some Chinese political insiders as a possible successor to current premier Wen Jiabao, instead of Li Keqiang, the vice-premier currently slated to fill that role when Wen steps down next year.

The process of top leadership selection is shrouded in secrecy but analysts say that as many as 200 people probably had some influence over the decision to anoint Mr Xi, compared with the five or so Party elders whom Deng consulted in the 1980s and 1990s.

For the standing committee positions the number probably increases to 300, compared with less than 10 people in the 1980s and 1990s.

“The number of relevant actors who might have a say is much larger today so candidates like Wang Qishan and Bo Xilai are trying to appeal to a much larger audience and it pays for them to do some public posturing,” says Mr Shih.

That is why, after many months of keeping a low profile, Mr Wang has emerged on the national stage with what analysts and officials believe is an attempt to shore up his liberal reform credentials and present his case for elevation.

Last weekend, in a regional meeting prominently covered by state media, Mr Wang predicted the global economy would slip back into recession and China would need to push through greater reforms in order to deal with the fallout.

While his comments set the stage for the government to begin loosening monetary policy, they also spelled out the policy thrust he is likely to pursue and seemed aimed at reassuring liberal reformers within the system.

They were also seen as a warning to potential challengers that he intends to remain firmly in control of the financial sector no matter what position he ends up with next year.

Late last month, Mr Wang appeared at a public event at Tsinghua University with an A-list of reformist officials from the financial world, including central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan, former top banking regulator Liu Mingkang, sovereign wealth fund chairman Lou Jiwei and newly appointed securities regulator Guo Shuqing.

Even more significant was the presence of reformist former premier Zhu Rongji, who rarely appears in public but is said to be highly critical of how his successors have handled the country and the economy since his retirement a decade ago.

Mr Wang has always been close to Mr Zhu but the joint public appearance has been viewed by many in Beijing as an endorsement and a coalescing around Mr Wang as the economic reform candidate.

Meanwhile, Guangdong Party secretary Wang Yang has appealed to his base by hinting at mild political reforms and emphasising quality of life over economic growth and Chongqing secretary Bo Xilai has used a combination of Communist nostalgia, populist crime-fighting and better welfare services to boost his chances of promotion next year.

But while every twist and gaffe of the US Republican primary contest is broadcast on 24-hour cable television, the world will have no idea who the frontrunners are in China’s political race until the chosen victors walk onto the stage at the end of next year to greet their subjects

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