Sunday, January 27, 2008

China's Presidential "Primary"

Just as the United States is picking its next president, so too China is choosing its next leaders in its own fashion. But whereas the winner of America’s primary season will take office in one year, the prospective Chinese leaders will have to wait a while longer.

China’s current leaders, president and party secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao won’t likely relinquish power until 2012 at the earliest. Nevertheless, their successors are now being selected, promoted and groomed.

Americans thinks in terms of administrations lasting four to eight years, the Chinese think in terms of generations. They are now choosing leaders for the “Fifth Generation”, those born in the 1950s and 1960s. China takes the long view.

Last October, while the non-Chinese world’s attention was elsewhere, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held its 17th Congress and elevated two senior cadres, Li Kegiang, 52, and Xi Jinping, 54, to the inner sanctum of power, the Standing Committee of the Politburo.

When the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, meets in March, these two are expected to be given important central government portfolios to prepare them for the final push. Li is likely to be named minister of finance; Xi probably will be named vice president.

The finance portfolio puts Li on track to replace Wen Jiabao as premier, while the vice presidency has, in recent years, been the stepping stone to ultimate power and prominence, the presidency, and leadership of the communist party.

Both men were brought into national government after serving in important provincial posts, Li as party secretary of Liaoyang province, Xi as party secretary of Shanghai. In the normal course of events Xi would take on the highest post in 2012 after the incumbent has served about ten years in office.

That is how the Chinese system currently works. Senior cadres are given important posts in the field as party secretary or governor of important provinces. Then they are brought into the central government for the final seasoning.

Li Kegiang and Xi Jinping, two persons virtually unknown outside the tiny community of China Watchers, but by the time they reach the ultimate offices, China will arguably be the most powerful nation on the planet and thus one or both of them will be the world’s most powerful men.

Whoever is elected U.S. president this November will be dealing with one or both of them probably by the time he or she begins his second term. Fortunately we have plenty of time to wrap our minds and mouths around their unfamiliar Mandarin Chinese names.

“Normal” is, of course, a relative term. This kind of orderly progression and peaceful succession has only been in place in China for about 20 years. It is the legacy of former “paramount” leader Deng Xiaoping, better known for his reforms in opening China’s economy to the world.

But he was also a political reformer. Deng was no democrat, but he did want to inculcate a sense of term limits and orderly, progressive succession. He didn’t want octogenarian strongmen clinging to power until their death beds. (Of course, Deng himself clung to power until he was over 90).

The man Deng picked in 1989 to succeed him, Jiang Zemin, retired in 2003 (not entirely without a struggle), making way for Hu Jintao. Jiang also set the pattern of personally assuming the office of state president, previously considered a fairly meaningless sinecure for deserving party veterans.

Of course, no one can say for sure that Hu will retire at the end of his official term of office. No one can say for sure that he might not see himself as president-for-life, and have the power to make it stick.

For that matter, one or both of the prospective candidates might stumble along the way or be muscled out by some other figure we haven’t heard of. Five years can be a long time in anybody’s politics.

That seems unlikely at this point, and the odds are that either or both of these two men will be China’s future leader. So it is probably worth mentioning their names once again: Li Kegiang and Xi Jinping.


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