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Chinese Left in the Dark Over New Leaders

Jamil Anderlini in Beijing
Sunday, 28 Oct 2012 | 5:30 AM ET

Less than 10 days after the US elects its president next month the Chinese people will find out who will lead them for the next five years.

Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images

But while voters in the US have a pretty good idea what they're getting no matter who wins, China's citizens won't even know for sure how many will make up their top group of leaders until those people walk on to the stage at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on or around November 15.

For the past 10 years, the standing committee of the politburo of the Communist Party of China, which includes the president and premier, has consisted of nine members who ruled the world's most populous nation through a system of collective decision-making.

But most political analysts expect the number will be reduced to seven when the line-up is finally revealed at the end of the party's 18th National Congress, which opens on November 8.

With just three weeks to go before the great unveiling, Chinese officials and professional China-watchers are engaged in a frenzy of speculation over which of a dozen qualified candidates will make it on to the all-powerful standing committee.

The appointments of general secretary and premier will not surprise anyone as Xi Jinping, current vice-president, and Li Keqiang, current vice-premier, have been publicly groomed for their respective positions for five years.

But who will make it on to the list of seven, or five, remaining positions and even how they are chosen, remains a mystery to all but a handful of Party leaders sitting in smoke-filled rooms in the Chinese capital.

"When it comes to such a high level matter [as who will be chosen for the standing committee] we certainly don't have any idea about the process," says Zhou Zhiren, director of the Centre for Public Sector Performance Management at Peking University's School of Government.

"If we professors don't know anything about high-level politics then the ordinary people know even less."

For those outside China, the final line-up is important because how the world's second-largest economy behaves on the global stage over the next decade will ultimately be decided collectively by this group of men (the committee has always been male).

Profiles of leading contenders to be appointed to the standing committee, the core of the Communist party, or the 25-member politburo
In a recent meeting with the Financial Times, one person with close ties to a top party leader solemnly read out a list of the entire future politburo, from which the standing committee is selected.

That person said the list had come directly from senior party leaders but he added a caveat, saying the final line-up could still change as a result of late-stage maneuvering by factions within the party.

His line-up for the standing committee included Wang Qishan, a vice-premier in charge of economic affairs whom virtually every political analyst has pegged for a top spot next month.

More controversially, the names included Yu Zhengsheng, party secretary of Shanghai and a two-term politburo member with a powerful "princeling" family background.

Many pundits have written off his chances because he is close to retirement age and because his brother, a former senior intelligence officer, defected to the US in the mid-1980s.

Infighting between elite conservatives and more liberal members of the Communist party has broken out as the next generation of leaders prepares to take power
Also on the list was Zhang Dejiang, the man who took over the portfolio of disgraced Chinese leader Bo Xilai after Mr Bo was detained in connection with his wife's murder of a British businessman.

Mr Bo is awaiting trial for a series of crimes, including corruption, abuse of power and perversion of justice, but before his downfall earlier this year he had been a frontrunner to enter the standing committee.

The other two names on the list were Wang Yang, the party secretary of Guangdong province, and Li Yuanchao, the head of the Communist party's organization department.

Many other people who claim to have inside knowledge of top leadership politics believe Wang Yang will not make it to the standing committee and doubts have also been raised in the last few weeks about Li Yuanchao's chances.

The fixation on the final list of names is being fed by apparent misinformation campaigns from various interest groups who hope to influence the process.

Some analysts argue that the real focus should be on how opaque and anachronistic the process is for a huge and rapidly modernizing economy that now plays such an important role in the world.

Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Program at University of California San Diego, points out there are serious risks involved in the lack of transparency and the absence of institutionalized procedures in choosing China's.

"Nothing is written down, not even a rule on term limits so they have the power to change the whole thing," she says. "This means you risk really alienating very powerful folk at the top and there is even a small possibility of disappointed contenders going rogue."