Only a tiny handful of China’s 1.3 billion people have any say in who these new leaders will be, however, and few have any clue what they believe or where they plan to take the country.
Ostensibly, the new leadership team will be elected by 2,000-plus delegates to the National Congress, which meets every five years, including this year. In reality, all decisions are made beforehand by a small clique believed to include the current Politburo Standing Committee members and some retired Party grandees, such as former president Jiang Zemin and former premier Li Peng, who represent sometimes competing factions.
Even Prime Minister Wen Jiabao seemed to acknowledge the paradox that is modern China on Wednesday, when he said at what is likely to be his last major news conference, “We must press ahead with both economic structural reform and political structural reform — in particular, reform in the leadership system of our party and country.”
But Wen has often called for political reform in the past — typically using the same words — to no apparent effect. And within hours of his latest remarks, the Communist hierarchy demonstrated once again just how secretively it operates.
Until this week, it was assumed that Bo Xilai, the populist, charismatic Politburo member and Party chief in Chongqing, was a top candidate for one of the nine coveted Standing Committee seats. While Bo was in charge in Chongqing, world leaders, foreign dignitaries and businessmen regularly trooped to the southwestern mega-city to extol its economic success, promise more investment and get face time with a future Standing Committee member.
But on Thursday, Bo, the son of a Party veteran, was effectively purged, removed not just from the Chongqing Party chief post but also from the city’s Central Committee. Many analysts say Bo’s career is now over, although some have speculated he might eventually be given a face-saving ceremonial post.
Wherever he ends up, Bo’s sudden departure from the top ranks illustrates the precariousness of power in a country where politics is practiced behind the scenes, with the public playing a purely spectator role.
“Even though China is more and more open and has frequent communications and exchanges with other countries, there are still a lot of problems with the system” of choosing the heirs to power, said Bo Zhiyue, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore who is studying Chinese elite politics. “Ordinary people and ordinary [Party] members have no chance of participating.”