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Colourless China shift hides leeway

Beijing, Nov. 15: China’s ruling Communist Party unveiled today an older, conservative leadership line-up that at first glance appears unlikely to take the drastic action needed to tackle pressing issues like social unrest, environmental degradation and corruption.

New party chief Xi Jinping, premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang and vice-premier in charge of economic affairs Wang Qishan, all named as expected to the elite decision-making politburo standing committee, are considered cautious reformers. The other four members have the reputation of being conservative.

The transition belied any hopes that Xi would usher in a leadership that would take bold steps to deal with slowing growth in the world’s second-biggest economy, or begin to ease the Communist Party’s iron grip.

But an unspoken age limit for party leaders means that several of them will retire at the next party congress, in 2017, at which point Xi might have an opening to get other allies appointed.

Xi will have to spend his first years building a power base, limiting the opportunity to make major policy moves. He might, however, support a further opening of the economy in his first five-year term, some political insiders said. If he or other leaders want to experiment with the political system, they would do that in his second term, even though true economic changes need political transformations as well.

But Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an American businessman who wrote an authorised biography of former President Jiang Zemin, predicted Xi would surprise those expecting him to adhere to the status quo.

The pressures on China to create a more sustainable economic system — one that relies less on investment in large projects and exports and more on domestic consumption and private business — will compel him to act soon. “The risks of not reforming are now higher than the risks of reforming,” Kuhn said.

Some remained sceptical on the political front. “We’re not going to see any political reform because too many people in the system see it as a slippery slope to extinction,” said David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University. “They see it entirely through the prism of the Soviet Union, the Arab Spring and the Colour Revolutions in Central Asia, so they’re not going to go there.”

Xi is facing a growing chorus of calls from Chinese elites to support greater openness in the economic and political systems, which critics say have stagnated in the last decade under the departing party chief, Hu Jintao, despite the country’s emergence as the world’s second-largest economy.

Hu, 69, also turned over the post of civilian chairman of the military to Xi, which made this transition the first time since the promotion of the ill-fated Hua Guofeng in 1976 that a Chinese leader had taken office as head of the party and the military at the same time. That gives Xi a stronger base.

Hu’s abdication of the military chairmanship sets an important institutional precedent for future successions and may put his legacy in a more favourable light. In Chinese politics, retired leaders try to maximise their influence well into old age.

Jiang held on to the military post for two years after giving up his party title in 2002, which led to heightened friction within the party. In recent months, he has worked to get his protégés installed on the standing committee.

The new standing committee has allies of Jiang in five of seven seats, reflecting his considerable power despite being hit by serious illness. The committee was trimmed to seven members from nine. One reason for that change is that some party leaders, including Xi, believe that an overrepresentation of interests on the committee has led to gridlock in decision making.

The smaller committee has also resulted in a downgrading of the party post that controls the security apparatus, which some officials asserted had grown too powerful.

 
 
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