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After the Congress
I set out major political themes for China in my report this week on the coming transition. Those who still have an appetite for more on the inner workings of the regime after the annual session of the national legislature last month may be interest in two main issues up for debate in the run-up to next year’s Communist Party Congress in which the next major event will be the Party Plenum this October.
1) The military succession: The first question is whether Hu Jintao will step down from the chairmanship of the Military Affairs Commission (MAC) or will stay on for another two years. He can argue that he had to wait till September 2004 to take over the job from Jiang Zemin and is entitled to two five-year terms, so he can therefore remain as civilian head of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) until the autumn of 2014. The last full Communist Party Plenum in October 2010 appointed Xi as Vice-Chairman of the MAC, so the eventual succession is not in doubt. But hanging on for two years after he relinquishes his position at the head of the Party would enable Hu to remain in a prominent position, as Jiang did between 2002 and 2004. This could be important given the fast development of the PLA, which includes the development of China’s first aircraft carrier (bought from Ukraine and now being modernized), the build-up of the submarine fleet, research on advanced fighter aircraft (including test flights of a stealth military jet) and development of anti-satellite rockets and jamming technology.
Given the relative weakness of the Foreign Ministry in the power structure in Beijing, informed sources say the PLA is playing a bigger role in shaping China’s relations abroad, especially in East Asia. The 2012 presidential election in Taiwan will focus attention on cross-Strait relations, which is a core PLA concern. If Hu hangs on to the MAC job and uses it as a lever in foreign policy, the stage could be set for a test of strength with the Communist Party’s Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, which is traditionally headed by the Party Secretary (i.e. Xi from October, 2012). Xi has good rapport with the younger generals. He served on a civilian PLA committee earlier in his career and one source says he has made a point of cultivating around 100 senior officers promoted in recent years.
2) Nine or seven? The size of the Standing Committee of the Politburo was increased from seven to nine when Hu succeeded Jiang Zemin as Party Secretary in 2002. This was part of the deal between the two men to enable Jiang to maintain the presence of members of his Shanghai Faction at the top of the power structure alongside the newer men brought in round Hu. Now the Shanghai group has been eclipsed, though Jiang still lurks in the background and his powerful (if little-loved) associate, Zeng Qinghong, maintains a web of political and military connections stemming from his time in charge of the Party’s Organization Department. Zeng has a link to the Standing Committee through his brother-in-law of Zhou Yongkang, the SC member in charge of public security, though Zhou will have passed the mandatory retirement age of 68 by October 2012 so will have to step down together with six or seven of the other Committee members.
Hu is widely believed to have wanted to cut the Committee’s size back to seven at the 2007 Congress. But he was stymied by pressure from Zeng who, even though he had to step down himself at the time for age reasons, wanted to ensure that as many representatives of the coastal interests as possible, including Xi and Zhou, were present at the top.
The question of reverting to seven members will be discussed ahead of the 2012 meeting. It would be easier to achieve this time because of the scale of the personnel changes when six or seven of the nine will step down. Streamlining supporters will argue that seven would be more efficient than nine but the Committee needs to contain not only the Party Secretary/State President, Prime Minister and the Presidents of the two houses of the legislature but also senior figures responsible for ideology, security, and Party appointments and internal Party discipline. So a problem of numbers does arise compounded by the way in which major interest groups want to feel they are represented at the top of the system. The seven or nine issue will, therefore, be a test of whether internal Party interests trump leaner leadership.