On October 18th, or immediately thereafter, a small line of people will walk in into the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square. That will be the new Standing Committee headed by Xi Jinping. And at that time the world shall know what has happened to the "elections" in China. The stunning fact is that very few people in the world seem to even know about one of the most momentous events in world politics. Very little has been written about it in the world press and almost nothing has made it to TV. Not even the significant Beidaihe retreat that happened in August.
All this at a time when many people in the world seem addicted to the nonsense that a certain person spews sitting on his toilet seat. The lack of interest in what is happening in China is, to this blogger, unbelievable. Perhaps unfamiliarity is the reason. And hence this blogger is breaking his vow to keep this blog completely apolitical and is launching into a series of posts on what is happening in China.
I begin with a small primer on the current Chinese political system. The Communist Party of China (CPC) is the apex body in China. The government is subservient to the Party. Even the People's Liberation Army is not the army of China; its the army of the Party. Therefore what happens in the Party is of prime (only) importance in the politics of China.
The apex decision making body in the CPC is the Politburo, currently consisting of 25 members. Consider it as the Cabinet. From amongst these, an elite group forms the Standing Committee of the Politburo. Currently it has 7 members. This is the all powerful body.
When Mao Zedong established the Party, and for as long as he ruled China, all these institutions were irrelevant. Mao was the sole power centre. But when he died and the dangers of concentrating so much power in one man became apparent, the party elders led by Deng Xiaoping, established some rules and norms for the politics of the future. Thus far they have been adhered to. They are
The principle of retirement . The unofficial term is "qishang baxia" or "Seven up; Eight down". The unwritten rule is that if you reach 68 at the CPC Congress meeting which is held once every five years (think of it as election year), you step down and retire. 5 of the 7 members of the Standing Committee and 11 of the 25 members of the Politburo have crossed 68.
- The General Secretary and the Premier usually serve for two terms - 10 years - and then stand down. The current incumbents are finishing their first term and can therefore continue for one more term.
- An all powerful single power centre , a la Mao, was never allowed to happen post his death. Even Deng was not all powerful - he had an equivalent power centre in Chen Yun. Factions abound ; the Shanghai faction, the Youth League, etc. These factions and their powerful overlords jockey for power behind closed doors. Retired leaders don't keep quiet - they exercise power by placing their underlings on these bodies.
- The norm in China is for leadership changes to happen with great turmoil, purges and the like. Only two peaceful transitions have ever happened - the handover from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao and from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping. Even the transition from Hu Jintao saw the dramatic fall and subsequent imprisonment of Bo Xilai.
- There are three powerful positions in China - The President of China (a mere titular position), the Secretary of the Communist Party (the real powerful position) and the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission that governs the armed forces. Currently all these three positions are held by Xi Jinping. That was the case with Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao as well, but in the Deng era, he was simply the Chairman of the CMC and the other positions were held by his chosen people. A fourth, and less powerful position is that of the Premier - currently held by Li Keqiang and is the No 2 position in China.
- Every year in the summer, the power brokers in China retire to a coastal town called Beidaihe , where all the skullduggery, bargaining and negotiations happen. Each faction tries to get its people on to the Politburo and the Standing Committee. Usually most of the big decisions are made here on the beach behind thick closed doors. This is the real "election" in China. The Beidaihe meeting happened last month and this blogger is mystified that not only have there been very little leaks, there has been scant reporting in the press as well. Next to the US elections, this is the most important political activity in the world. And we don't hear even a squeak.
- In the last two peaceful transitions, at the end of the first of the two terms of the incumbent leaders, the top of the subsequent generation is usually nominated to the Standing Committee. This gives the clue as to who would subsequently take over as leaders. If the past 20 years is a guide, then this should happen in the current change and the successor to Xi Jinping who would take over 5 years from now, would at least be indicated. But as we would see in subsequent posts, there is a good chance that this won't happen.
In the next post, we will assess the current political landscape and who are the power brokers in China.