China's Communist Party Conclave Nears End

By Gillian Wong 14 November 2012

BEIJING—China’s Communist Party was bringing its pivotal conclave to a close on Wednesday in largely choreographed steps a day before unveiling its leaders for the coming decade.

President Hu Jintao is expected to step down as party chief in favor of the anointed successor, Vice-President Xi Jinping, in what would be only the second orderly transfer of power in 63 years of communist rule. The new leaders of the world’s second-largest economy will face slowing growth, rising unrest among increasing assertive citizens and delicate relations with neighboring countries.

The party’s 2,200-plus delegates filed into Beijing’s Great Hall of the People in the morning to select members of the Central Committee, a panel of a few hundred people that approves leadership positions and sets broad policy goals, ahead of the scheduled close of the congress later on Wednesday.

But the next lineup in China’s apex of power, the Politburo Standing Committee, will be announced only on Thursday. Though congress and Central Committee delegates have some influence over leadership decisions, most of the lineup is decided among a core group of the most powerful party members and elders.

The congress votes are “fully democratic” but “there is a degree of inevitability,” said party delegate Song Guofeng of Liaoning province as he entered the hall. “We need to have continuity in leadership to carry on. They are already in the leadership core. The stability of the party and of the county is important.”

Hu and senior leaders mostly in their late 60s are handing over power to the leader-in-waiting, Xi, 59, and colleagues of his generation over the next several months. Vice-Premier Li Keqiang already was tapped five years ago to be the country’s next premier, China’s top economic official. But other top positions were up for grabs.

China’s leadership transitions are always occasions for fractious backroom bargaining, but this one has been further complicated by scandals that have fed public cynicism that their leaders are more concerned with power and wealth than government.

In recent months, Bo Xilai, a senior politician seen as a rising star, was purged after his aide exposed that his wife murdered a British businessman. An ally of Hu’s was sidelined after his son died in the crash of a Ferrari he shouldn’t have been able to afford. And foreign media recently reported that relatives of Xi and outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao had amassed vast wealth. The scandals have weakened Hu, on whose watch they occurred.

The congress is a largely ceremonial gathering of representatives—mostly carefully selected from the national and provincial political and military elite—who have met to endorse a work report delivered by Hu at the opening a week ago. The real deal-making for the top positions on the Standing Committee is done behind-the-scenes by the true power-holders.

Aside from appointing Central Committee members, delegates assembled inside the Great Hall of the People were tasked with selecting the membership of the party’s internal corruption watchdog, the Central Discipline Inspection Committee, and with voting on amendments to the party’s charter.

After the congress ends, the Central Committee meets Thursday to select the next Politburo and from that, the Politburo Standing Committee, largely on the advice of influential leaders.

The leaders also will select new members of the party’s Central Military Commission that oversees the 2.3 million-member People’s Liberation Army. It is unclear if Hu will relinquish his position at the head of the party’s Central Military Commission or hold on to it for a period after retirement, as past leaders have, to retain influence.

Hu will remain president until March.

The next cohort of leaders face daunting challenges including efforts to pull the country’s economy into a recovery from a sharp downturn, tense territorial disputes with Japan and other neighbors and the demands of a new middle class and millions of rural migrants for a better life.