China's very different election show

As China prepares for a once-in-a decade leadership transition, almost nothing substantive will be disclosed about the candidates – and this murkiness is in direct proportion to the importance of the handover.

FT.com

On November 6 or 7, two American men in suits will appear on television. Even with the sound off you will be able to tell, by the expression on their faces, which of them has been elected president and which has not.

And, on an unspecified date between now and the end of the year, an unspecified number of Chinese men in dark matching suits will applaud themselves on to the stage of the Great Hall of the People. From the order in which they appear, experienced onlookers will be able to tell who is president, who is premier and who has which of the other jobs on the Politburo’s standing committee, China’s pre-eminent ruling body. My colleague Richard McGregor, in his enthralling book The Party, says the spectacle provides "something rare in modern China, a live and public moment of genuine political drama”.

If the Communist party keeps to its present 10-year cycle (and manages to hold on to power), the next time the two most powerful countries in the world elect their leaders at roughly the same time will be in 2032. This year, then, will witness the psephologist’s equivalent of a total solar eclipse.

In the US, we know practically everything there is to know about the candidates, if you leave aside Mitt Romney’s missing tax returns. In China, we know almost nothing substantive about them, save that Bo Xilai need not apply.

This week the Communist party picked the 2,270 delegates who will attend the 18th party congress at which the new standing committee members will be anointed. Party officials sought to present the process as the most 'democratic' in its history. It emphasised the humble origins of some of the delegates, who include miners, factory workers, bus drivers and 22-year-old Jiao Liuyang, who won the 200m women’s butterfly gold medal at the London Olympics. The official China Daily newspaper pointed out triumphantly that the selection entailed "an unprecedented choice, with every 100 delegates elected from a field of more than 115 candidates”. In Communist party terms, this evidently counted as near-anarchy.

Deng Shengming, deputy head of the powerful organisation department, said: "It’s a very open, transparent electoral system, all out under the sunshine.” One must assume he was talking about the view of sunshine one often gets in Beijing, through the pea-soup haze of coal dust and assorted particulates.

So open is the transition process that the date of the party congress itself is still a state secret. Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao this week speculated that it would be moved forward to September as a signal of party unity following the Bo Xilai scandal. Party officials would only repeat the mantra that the national congress would take place sometime in the second half of 2012. Even the number of people who will sit on the standing committee is unclear. Currently nine, it may be cut to seven. Or then again, it may not.

The result of the election will not be left to chance. It will be decided well in advance. While Delegate Jiao was breaking an Olympic record in London, senior party hacks were getting down to real business. They gathered in Beidaihe, the seaside resort favoured by Communist party leaders and – in the doubtless open and democratic atmosphere of their walled compound – they set about finalising the selection process.

The transition was blown badly off course by the detention of Bo, the disgraced former party secretary of Chongqing who had openly campaigned for a slot on the standing committee. It is ironic that the only man who publicly sought office should be the one barred from seeking it. With Bo purged and his wife, Gu Kailai, convicted of murder in last week’s one-day trial, there are signs that the transition is back on track. Beijing is stepping up security and cracking down on any sign of disgruntled citizens. The silencing of the powerless is a sure sign that China’s democratic process is in full swing.

If everything goes according to plan, the Communist party will accomplish only its second smooth transition since it came to power in 1949. Deng Xiaoping took over from Mao Zedong after a protracted tussle with Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng. Jiang Zemin succeeded Deng in the chaotic time after Tiananmen Square. Before the Bo scandal, the party had gone to considerable trouble to telegraph its next two top leaders. Xi Jinping, almost certain to succeed Hu as president, and Li Keqiang, who will take over from Wen Jiabao as premier, have been paraded at home and rolled out on symbolic visits to the US and Europe. So organised is everything, the new leaders won’t even have to worry about coming up with their own policies. Those were laid out for them in the five-year plan for 2011-2015 approved last year.

The murkiness of the transition process is in direct proportion to its importance. In spite of the shift towards collective decision-making, it matters greatly who runs China even if, as McGregor writes, "any fundamental political differences between them had been purged on their ascent through the ranks”.

One would like to think it matters, for instance, whether Wang Yang, the (possibly) liberal-leaning party secretary of Guangdong province, is on the standing committee. It should matter too who is in charge of domestic security, a portfolio whose budget has been ramped up to surpass that of national defence under the hardline incumbent Zhou Yongkang. It ought to matter how committed the new leadership is to rebalancing the economy towards domestic demand, how tightly it wants to control interest rates and bank lending, and what sort of tone it hopes to set in foreign policy. It is almost enough to make you want a televised debate.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.

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