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Tue Sep 16 23:30:46 SAST 2014

THE BIG READ: A darker shade of red

Ben Blanchard, Reuters | 16 November, 2012 00:14
New CPC Leaders Meet Press
New Chinese Communist Party chief Xi Jinping has been called 'a cautious reformer' Picture: LINTAO ZHANG/GALLO IMAGES
Image by: Lintao Zhang / Getty Images

China's ruling Communist Party has unveiled an older, conservative leadership line-up that appears unlikely to take the drastic action needed to tackle pressing issues such as social unrest, environmental degradation and corruption.

New party chief Xi Jinping, premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang and Vice-Premier Wang Qishan, all named, as expected, to the elite decision-making politburo standing committee, are considered cautious reformers. The other four members have the reputation of being conservative.

The line-up, which was unveiled yesterday, belies any hopes that Xi will usher in a leadership that will take bold steps to deal with slowing growth in the world's second-biggest economy, or begin to ease the Communist Party's iron grip.

"We're not going to see political reform because too many people in the system see it as a slippery slope to extinction," a director at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, David Shambaugh, said.

"They see it [reform ] through the prism of the Soviet Union, the Arab Spring and the colour revolutions in Central Asia, so they're not going to go there."

Wang, the most reform-minded in the line-up, has been given the role of fighting widespread graft, which has been identified by both Xi and outgoing president Hu Jintao as the biggest danger faced by both party and state.

The run-up to the handover, however, has been overshadowed by the party's biggest scandal in decades, in which former highflyer Bo Xilai was sacked as party boss of southwestern Chongqing city after his wife was accused of murdering a British businessman.

Bo, who has not been seen in public since early this year, might face charges of corruption and abuse of power.

In an informal poll, more than 200 voting members of the party's central committee chose the seven winning candidates of the standing committee from a list of 10, a source revealed. Guangdong party boss Wang Yang and organisation head Li Yuanchao, who both have strong reform credentials, failed to make the cut, as did the lone woman candidate in the party race, Liu Yandong.

The source, who has ties to the leadership and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao, who are both allies of Hu, did not make it because party elders feel they are too liberal.

The final seven-member leadership has an average age of 63.4 years compared with 62.1 five years ago. The other change is that the standing committee has been trimmed to seven members from nine, which should ease consensus-building and decision-making.

Except for Xi and his deputy, Li, all the others in the standing committee are 64 or older and will have to retire within five years, when the next party congress is held.

That means the party might just tread water on the most vital reforms until then. After that, however, Xi will probably have more independence in choosing his team. The current line-up has been finalised by Xi, Hu and by former president Jiang Zemin, who has wielded considerable influence in the party after the tumult over the Bo scandal.

"The leadership is divided," Chinese politics expert at Hong Kong Baptist University Jean-Pierre Cabestan said, but he added that the new leadership will find it easier to make progress on economic reform if not on political change.

"It's easier for them to move to a new growth model. I think they agree upon that and it won't be the hardest task. But I see a lot of political paralysis," he said.

Tony Saich, a China politics expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said: "To me, it smacks of a holding pattern. I think the understanding is that Wang Yang has a good shot in five years' time."

Besides being party chief, Xi has been appointed head of the party's top military body, which gives him two of the three most important posts in China. He will take over from Hu in March.

"We are not complacent," Xi said after introducing the standing committee at the Great Hall of the People in a choreographed ceremony broadcast live on state television.

"Under the new conditions, our party faces many challenges. There are many pressing problems within the party that need to be resolved, particularly corruption [and] being divorced from the people."

North Korean-trained economist Zhang Dejiang is expected to head the largely rubber-stamp parliament, and Shanghai party boss Yu Zhengsheng is likely to lead the legislature's advisory body, according to the order in which their names were announced.

Tianjin party chief Zhang Gaoli and Liu Yunshan, a conservative who has kept domestic media on a tight leash, make up the rest of the committee. Zhang is expected to become executive vice-premier.

"Words from the new leadership will be reform-minded but deeds would be very cautious, at least in economic and financial restructuring," managing partner at Mandarin Capital Partners Alberto Forchielli said.

Reform advocates are pressing Xi to cut back the privileges of state-owned companies, make it easier for rural migrants to settle in cities, fix a fiscal system that encourages local governments to live off land expropriations and, above all, tether the powers of a state that, they say, risks suffocating growth.

Growing anger and unrest about, among other things, corruption and environmental degradation, might inspire cautious efforts to answer calls for more political reform - but nobody expects a move towards full democracy.

The party could introduce experimental measures to broaden inner-party democracy - in other words, encouraging greater debate within the party. But stability remains a top concern and one-party rule will be safeguarded.

In contrast to the excitement witnessed in the run-up to the announcement of the standing committee, the unveiling barely caused a ripple in China's countryside.

"We're not that interested," a fruit and vegetable farmer, Chen Yongjiang, said in Chenjiapu, a village in Hebei Province.

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Tue Sep 16 23:30:47 SAST 2014 ::