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Reform in the Air in Beijing

At the moment, the Communist Party elite is gathered in Beijing for the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress. China’s Constitution makes the NPC, as it is known, the supreme organ of state power, but everyone views it as just the “rubber stamp” that it in fact is. This year, however, the massive gathering has taken on significance because it is considered the “warm-up” for the 18th Communist Party Congress. 

The Party Congress, to be held sometime this fall, will set China’s direction for the next decade. At the event, the party will, among other things, select a new Central Committee, the body that presides over the organization between congresses.

And then things really get interesting. On the day after the Congress, the new Central Committee will convene the First Plenum to appoint a new leadership. Specifically, we will see a new Politburo, Central Military Commission, and Secretariat.  More important, the Central Committee will appoint a new Standing Committee of the Politburo and the next general secretary, the most powerful post in the People’s Republic. 

At a minimum, seven of the nine members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee will change, as will seven of the 16 regular members of the Politburo. At least seven of the 12 members of the Central Military Commission will be new. More than 60 percent of the Central Committee’s 370 members will retire and be replaced.

So it is no surprise that nearly 3,000 deputies at the NPC meeting are not paying attention as the outgoing leaders deliver their overly long and incredibly boring “work reports” at the Great Hall of the People. They are instead spending their time gossiping, conspiring, and angling for higher office. The politicking is intense, and despite predictions of a “smooth” transition, it is now clear that the transfer of power, from the so-called Fourth Generation leaders, led by Hu Jintao, to the Fifth, will be turbulent.

This time, the handover from one set of leaders to the next is provoking real debate among party luminaries because there is a sense that things must change in the country. So it is not only the wholesale turnover in party leadership that is consuming the assembled deputies. There is now talk of fundamental reform, political as well as economic.

There is always great hope, both inside and outside the People’s Republic, when new leaders take over in Beijing, and now, with the need for change apparent, many are beginning to think that Xi Jinping, slated to replace Hu Jintao as general secretary, and Li Keqiang, tapped to take over from Premier Wen Jiabao, will actually move the country in the right direction. As Wang Xiangwei, the new editor of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, reports, “Already there is positive chatter that both Xi and Li are bona fide reformists, unlike Hu and Wen, who have continually spoken of reforms but failed to manage any significant breakthroughs during their 10-year reigns.”

There are a dozen reasons why analysts think that Xi will sponsor change once he takes over after the First Plenum: his father was a reformer, members of Xi’s Princeling faction are bolder than the technocrats, new Chinese leaders always try to clean house if they can. All this makes sense, but there are also a hundred reasons why Xi will act to protect the status quo: Xi is close to conservative generals, he will protect the business interests of fellow Princelings, he will need years to consolidate his political base among the hard-liners controlling Beijing.

In truth, we do not know what Xi really thinks or how he will exercise power, should he in fact take over the Communist Party this fall. Yet among the NPC deputies now in the Chinese capital, there is a sense of anticipation that his rule will see great change. And the desire for change is the one precondition for progress.

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