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Unveiling China's Political Future

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: October 22, 2007

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Much as expected, China reelected President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao at the close of the Communist Party's Seventeenth National Congress. Each will serve another five-year term. More notably, President Hu also signaled the possible successors (BBC) to China's two most senior political positions. Hu tapped four new senior officials, including Shanghai party chief Xi Jinping and the head of Liaoning province, Li Keqiang, who now become front-runners in the race to succeed Hu and Wen. Xi and Li were added to the powerful nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, whose membership generally represents a critical step on the route to the top job. The BBC reports that Xi ranks above Li, suggesting “he might be ahead in the succession race.” But Brookings’ Senior Fellow Cheng Li said it’s premature to say who will succeed Hu Jintao: “I think it will become ugly” (AFP).

Experts say the congress provided an opportunity for Hu to consolidate his power (LAT). He incorporated his signature “scientific outlook on development” in the party constitution, “securing his place in the pantheon of Communist leaders alongside Mao, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.” Since coming to power in 2002, President Hu has emphasized development that is in harmony with its environment and takes growing economic inequality into account instead of economic growth that is merely focused on numbers. But The Economist points out how Chinese leaders, too busy worrying about their own survival, refuse to take any substantial steps towards solving the problem of growing income disparity.

Once every five years, China's top communist leaders meet to lay down the blueprint for national development for the next half decade, discuss inner party politics, review the work of the last five years and, most significantly, pick their successors. This Backgrounder explains the workings of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its eccentric, opaque leadership. Much of what passes for analysis of these workings really amounts to little more than educated guesses. As the Christian Science Monitor notes, though there is a lot of political maneuvering and horse trading taking place behind closed doors, “China's top communists are now building coalitions and seeking compromises among themselves that some say could pave the way for a more open form of government.” But this has also led to increasing factional politics in the party.

In a new interview, CFR Senior Fellow Elizabeth C. Economy says people are agitating for greater democracy at virtually every level of Chinese society. But Economy says it remains to be seen whether these people will coalesce into a more cohesive movement. In the run-up to the Congress, the party cracked down (BBC) on any potential political dissidence and even shut down more than eighteen thousand websites.

China's rising power in economic and military fields, its expanding role in global affairs, and its pursuit of resources bring it into competition and sometimes even into conflict with the United States. Brookings' Li, a member of the CFR Task Force that produced a report on the future of U.S.-China relations, tells CFR.org that the question of “how accommodating China should be to international pressure is by no means solved.” China's foreign policy in the future will be dictated as much by the path Congress lays out as by its pragmatic interests.

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