Once every decade China goes through the process of replacing its president and associated delegates. In an unplanned but stark contrast, it just so happens that this week saw both the US presidential elections and China’s ruling Communist Party begin a congress that will oversee the process of membership change.
Unlike the open media frenzy of the US elections, the Beijing leadership’s regime change, while having a substantial dose of pomp to honor the seven-decade rule of the Party, is a carefully coordinated process that is not decided at the ballot box, or even through measured live debates, but rather is carried out behind closed doors.
Some 2,000 delegates, who in name at least reportedly represent around 82.6 million party members, descended Thursday on the Great Hall of the People, the political hub of Beijing situated to the west of the Tian’anmen Square, in order to commence the process of instituting China’s next group of statesmen.
The interesting thing is, it has already been decided who will succeed the 69-year-old incumbent President Hu Jintao. His replacement will be current vice president Xi Jinping, the 59-year-old the son of a Communist Party elder who is believed to be the only choice for the position.
Two-hundred delegates will also be selected for positions in the Central Committee, and while the Party has previously used a surplus of candidates to back up its line that these are in fact elections, it is believed that each member is carefully chosen rather than their candidacy being subjected to anything like a popular vote.
This name-only power transition is set against a backdrop of a prolonged struggle between Maoist hardliners and reformists in the party and so is of itself a test of the presiding administration’s ability to maintain unity amid competing interests during the hand-off.
The lead-up to the congress, which happens every 10 years, also saw many international news websites blocked, these in addition to longstanding bans on social media sites like Facebook, and as an article in Time puts it “Internet speed” has “slowed to the pace of a somnolent tortoise for some users.”
Dissenters and dissidents were also reportedly removed from the area surrounding the Great Hall of the People, or were confined under house arrest, to ensure the congressional meeting would not be disturbed.
It is perhaps this then that gave the outgoing President Hu much to talk about in his (much shorter than in previous years) 90-minute speech to delegates.
In the speech, Hu urged for the people to unify in their pursuing “the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics” and to “strive to complete the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects.”
The President also attempted to draw attention to China’s economic successes, saying, “The economy has been developing in a fast and stable manner. Great progress has been made in the opening and reforms. People’s living standards have improved notably.”
Hu said he wanted that to continue, giving a 2020 target for China’s gross domestic product of $5.9 trillion. This would require a growth rate of around 7 percent a year. That assumes China can maintain the rate it has enjoyed to date.
China’s economic growth, making it into what is considered by most standards the world’s second largest economy, may be impressive, but Hu leaves power as China prepares to confront significant economic hurdles, not least of which are the glaringly wide holes in basic living standards for many Chinese people.
These issues also featured in Hu’s speech, wherein he acknowledged, ”There is still much room for improvement. For instance, unbalanced, uncoordinated development remains a problem. The development gap between urban areas and [rural] regions remains large, so are income disparities.”
The speech, however, offered no signs of any real policy designed to remedy these issues, and analysts like JPMorgan’s Jing Ulrich, the company’s managing director and chairman of global markets, has said she is doubtful that a change in figureheads will see China confront in any real way the problems caused by the global economic recession. She also ruled out any large-scale fiscal stimulus as was tried in 2009.
Why is China’s election of a new group of figureheads, made by the same decades-old party, important then? It isn’t for the near term, that’s for sure.
However, what seems to be clear for the Chinese leadership is that there is both an appetite for democracy in the nation, where this year members of the public participated in a mock US election and cast their votes for Obama, and also a real need for a less trenchant agenda, that is if China is going to have a chance of stabilizing its sprawling rich-poor divide. It is also believed that the Communist Party’s future may in part rest on greater transparency and a less stifling environment.
It is for this reason that the congress and elections offer a glimpse into what direction the Party may be envisioning.
With regards to President Obama’s victory on Tuesday night, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei is reported as saying that both President Hu Jintao and his successor Vice President Xi Jinping were looking forward to working with Obama.
In Hu’s opening speech to congress this week he did however take time say that China would not be copying the US system of politics.