Party Intrigue: Will Political Scandal Delay China’s Once-a-Decade Leadership Transition?

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Wei yao / Imaginechina / AP

The rumors have floated around for a while now, as China’s leadership scrambles to contain political scandals and factional infighting that have inconveniently bubbled up just as the country is gearing up for its once-in-a-decade leadership transition. On May 9, Reuters reported its sources had confirmed that China was “seriously considering a delay in its upcoming five-yearly congress by a few months amid internal debate over the size and makeup of its top decision-making body.” Instead of occurring as expected this September or October, the 18th National Congress may take place between November and January 2013, according to Reuters.

The names of the bodies (or “central organs” as they are sometimes called) that rule China through the bureaucracy of the Chinese Communist Party are almost deliberately dull, as if their tedious designations can somehow obscure their tremendous power. The power structures at the very top narrows like this: the Central Committee (300-plus full and alternate members), the Politburo (currently 24 members, after the suspension of disgraced Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai), the Politburo Standing Committee (the nine members at the very apex of power) and, finally, the General Secretary of the Party’s Central Committee (the most important of the three main titles China’s current leader Hu Jintao holds).

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Then there’s a separate but interlocking structure of state governmental positions that includes the State Council (the rough equivalent to China’s Cabinet), which reports to the President of China (Hu again). And the Central Military Commission, which, too, is helmed by Hu as its Chairman and controls a further nexus of power in China. Plus, the nebulous advisory body called the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which is like the Party’s internal-affairs department.

And then there are other influential offshoots of the Central Committee, like the Central Guidance Commission for Building Spiritual Civilization and the Central Political and Legislative Committee. There’s the Secretariat, which oversees the anodyne-sounding but incredibly important General Office, Central Organization Department and Central International Liaison Department, among others. Finally, there’s a bewildering array of so-called central leading groups that report to the Central Committee, including my personal favorite, the Central Leading Group for Protection of Party Secrets. Got all that?

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What’s most at stake at the 18th National Congress is the announcement of the grandest of pooh-bahs who will make up China’s ruling Standing Committee. As of this fall, all but two of the nine members on the Standing Committee will have reached the mandatory retirement age of 67. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, the pair who are left, are widely believed to be the heirs apparent to Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao, respectively. That leaves seven other positions open, although speculation is mounting that the Standing Committee may be shaved to just seven members in total or even expanded to 11 people in all.

Given the opacity with which the Communist Party operates in China, the jockeying for these Standing Committee seats will likely happen out of the public eye. But with the downfall of Bo Xilai, who was vying for promotion to the vaunted body, factional rivalries may well be hardening between at least two main camps: the princelings (offspring of Communist Party royalty, including Xi) and the Communist Youth League alumni (represented by presumed future No. 2 Li). That’s not to say that Xi and Li don’t get along. But with prominent princeling Bo sidelined and his wife suspected in the murder of a British businessman in China, the delicate balance of power between the various factions within the Party may well be upset.

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That’s bad news for a leadership that is fixated on what China calls “stability maintenance.” A delay in the National Congress could mean more time to work out the kinks in a system that not only has been thrown into disarray by the purging of a major figure but also must constantly harmonize the interests of three poles of power: the Party, the military and the state itself. Two of the last five National Congresses were postponed, so a delay isn’t an unprecedented event. Nor are unexpected turns in a leadership transition. Only the last of the People’s Republic’s power handovers was considered truly peaceful. And even Xi’s eventual positioning as Hu’s successor was somewhat of a surprise. All those committees and conferences that rule China may seem mind-numbing. But with the People’s Republic now the world’s second-largest economy and a rising global power, the stakes have never been higher.

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