Continuity the Theme of the 17th Party Congress

By November 9, 2007 No Comments

The CCP celebrates China’s achievements, affirms its confidence in the leadership of Hu and Wen, and appoints their understudies.


More than 2,000 of China’s top leaders gathered in Beijing in mid-October for the 17th National Congress of China’s Communist Party. As anticipated, the Congress affirmed Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao’s continued leadership and enshrined their policy directives in the Party constitution. And their possible successors were elevated to the Standing Committee of the CCP Politburo.

Hu Jintao will continue as CCP General Secretary and chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission. Later, he will be re-elected President by the National People’s Congress. Other Politburo Standing Committee holdovers Wu Bangguo will be confirmed as National People’s Congress chair and Wen Jiabao as premier of the State Council. Each has held these positions since 2002 or 2003.

Sidney Rittenberg, an American who lived in China for four decades and who is the only American citizen to have joined the Chinese Communist Party, has known many Chinese leaders, including Mao Zedong, the dominant figure in the Party from 1935 until his death in 1976. He was in Beijing to observe the National Party Congress and expressed appreciation for Hu Jintao’s political skills and vision for the future.

In an interview with US-China Today Rittenberg called Hu, “positively the best kind of leader to keep this country together, to keep all the different factions together unified.”

Other veteran observers are also impressed, but are less certain that Hu and his associates can manage as well over the next several years. Political scientist and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Susan Shirk told US-China Today, “The fact they were able to pull off a choice of successors without any public splits in the leadership reduces the risk of a political crisis in the next five years. However, it is still an open question whether or not this consensus decisionmaking is capable of addressing the very serious social problems that exist in China that are stimulus for widespread social unrest.”

In the past, Party giants Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping unilaterally designated who would occupy top Party and government posts and who would succeed them. It was Deng who named Hu Jintao to succeed Jiang Zemin as CCP chief. Hu, like Jiang before him, lacks the stature of those revolutionary war leaders. Hu’s successors have been selected through negotiations among elite leaders and their representatives. This high-stakes consensus-building process was done entirely behind closed doors. CCP leaders settled on Xi Jinping, 54, Shanghai’s CCP head, and Li Keqiang, 52, Liaoning province’s CCP head, as the individuals to groom as the next set of Party and State leaders.

“There’s clearly a division of labor among them and Xi Jinping is the presumed heir, but if Li Keqiang wanted to, he could try to challenge Xi Jinping,” said Shirk. Such a challenge could come through a mobilization of influential elders and others behind a particular set of policy options or by demonstrating superior leadership and administrative skills.

In her new book, China: Fragile Superpower, University of California at San Diego professor Shirk has argued that the serious economic and environmental challenges facing China could generate tensions that might fray CCP unity. Disagreements over the process and pace of political reform could also be divisive.

CCP leaders are obviously very sensitive to these issues. At the National Congress Hu and his associates acknowledged economic inequalities, environmental problems, and enervating official corruption. They argued that scientific, that is steady and managed economic advance was critical to enriching society and in helping to alleviate social tensions. For some time now, Hu has insisted the Party and government must work to foster greater social harmony. They point to a 20% reduction last year in violent demonstrations, officially totaling more than 80,000 incidents in 2005, as evidence that progress is being made.

“Economic growth and social security, social welfare, should be tied together instead of the sort of one-sided emphasis on grow, grow, grow,” said Rittenberg.

All analysts insist that continued economic growth is essential if the Party is to maintain stability. For nearly a generation now, that has been the bargain the Party’s made with the people. Steady economic liberalization and growth in exchange for acceptance of Party control.

For years, though, the Party has also pledged political reforms. Village elections were initiated, but only experimental elections have been held at the higher levels where real authority lies. At this gathering, Hu and others did offer vague proposals for continued expansion of popular participation in selecting government officials. It’s far from certain that even these tepid proposals will advance.

Richard Baum, UCLA political scientist told US-China Today that any political innovations would “require enormous consensus that does not exist.”

More likely are small procedural changes of the sort seen at this Congress. For instance, the fact there were 8% more candidates than Central Committee slots was labeled a democratic advance. Another minor change is that the effective retirement age for party officials dropped to 68 from 70.

The Party itself, however, is changing. Recruits are better educated and are often successful businesspeople. Baum said that those who could be “co-opted to create support” for the party would be included but those who would “start mobilizing the dispossessed, disaffected, and angry” against the party would be excluded.

Rittenberg, however, argues that the Congress did pay attention to a popular and powerful grievance. Ordinary Chinese citizens want to “see more effective measures taken against corruption,” said Rittenberg. Last year, the Party removed Chen Liangyu as Shanghai’s CCP chief. Charged with having lined the pockets of relatives and friends, Chen, a former member of the Politburo’s Standing Committee, was expelled from the Party. He is now in a Beijing prison. Hu’s promised to hold Party members and government officials accountable for any misdeeds.

A more open media could hold officials accountable to achieve these aims.  “Hopefully, we’ll see more leeway for the media to expose corruption,” said Rittenberg.

Earlier this year, television reports of workers, including child laborers, held as virtual slaves at Shanxi brick kilns. The reporting led to investigations in the role of officials in permitting or covering up such abuses.

It’s clear that China’s top leaders do not condone such cruelty or official malfeasance. What’s less clear is what political risks they are willing to take to encourage coverage of social ills and to hold officials, officials they rely on to maintain control, accountable.

Leading one-fifth of humanity is an enormous task. China’s accomplishments since 1978 are remarkable. At the same time, some speakers at the just-completed congress offered candid assessments of the challenges confronting the nation. The overriding theme, however, was that continuity in leadership and policies held the greatest promise for stability and economic progress.

Beckie Lowenstein is a senior studying International Relations and East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California.