BEIJING (AP) — China’s ruling Communist Party opens a congress Thursday to usher in a new group of younger leaders faced with the challenging tasks of righting a flagging economy and meeting public calls for better government.
The weeklong congress is the start of a carefully choreographed but still fraught power transfer in which President Hu Jintao and most of the senior leadership will begin to relinquish office. Vice President Xi Jinping, the anointed heir for the past five years, came a step closer to power Wednesday, being named the congress’ secretary-general at a preparatory meeting.
Meeting in the Great Hall of the People, the congress seems drawn from another time. It’s a public gathering of 2,268 delegates drawn from the 82 million-member party where the real deal-making is done by a few dozen power-brokers behind the scenes, even as China is ever more connected to the world through trade and the Internet.
Coming so soon after the U.S. presidential election climaxed withPresident Barack Obama’s re-election, the congress has drawn unfavorable comparisons from politically minded Chinese.
“I am doing nothing but staring at the television before Obama gets re-elected. As for China’s party congress, there is no need for me to worry. On the contrary, it would be a waste of my time,” Xu Xiaoping, a celebrity entrepreneur who co-founded a successful chain of English cram schools, said on a Chinese version of Twitter where he has 6 million followers.
To many Chinese, China is at an inflection point. Its old model of heavily state-directed growth that lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and made China an economic powerhouse is sputtering in the face of rising domestic debt and a weak global economy. Meanwhile, the government has to contend with the public’s continued expectations of higher living standards and for less corruption and greater accountability, if not outright democracy.
Whether the new leaders want to move China in a new direction is not known. Xi and other top candidates for the new leadership have forged their careers as capable administrators in provinces and bureaucracies, not as policy trail-blazers. Should ambitious change be on their agenda, they will have to confront vested interests within their ranks: cosseted state industries and conservative officials grown prosperous and powerful under the current system.
One thing the party appears to be ruling out is a major shift toward a more open, democratic political system, despite appeals in recent months from commentators, retired party members and government think tanks.
“The leading position of the Communist Party in China is a decision made by history and by the people,” congress spokesman Cai Mingzhao told reporters on Wednesday. He pointed to China’s rise as an economic power and said, “It speaks fully to the strong leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the fact that the political system suits China’s national reality.”
The congress itself is unlikely to give Xi and his colleagues a mandate for sweeping reform. They have been engaged with Hu, retired party elders and influential senior politicians and military commanders in divisive bargaining, made worse by a pair of scandals. Politburo member Bo Xilai was purged after an aide disclosed that Bo’s wife had murdered a British businessman. One of Hu’s top lieutenants was also sidelined after his son died crashing a Ferrari, a sign of corruption.
A likely result of the back-and-forth is a leadership that balances interest groups, and over the past decade that has been a recipe for plodding, incremental policy.
The centerpiece of the congress opening, a lengthy speech by Hu, is an uncertain indicator of where the new leadership wants to take China. In the early decades of reform, such speeches provided ideological cover as the party tried to break away from the dogma of central planning and experiment with freer markets. More recently, the documents have become ways for past leaders to constrain their heirs by stressing continuity.
In a preview of the speech given to senior officials in July and excerpted and analyzed in state media, Hu stressed the economy remains key. He said getting growth back to a relatively high rate remained crucial to meeting demands from the public — most clearly evidenced by large-scale strikes and protests, or what he called “contradictions.”
Cai, the congress spokesman, ticked off a list of what Hu’s team had accomplished — wider access to state-supported education through the ninth grade, an expanded social safety net and the start of a nationwide low-cost housing sector.
“The past decade has witnessed the greatest improvement in people’s livelihoods in the history of China’s development,” Cui said. “We will make guaranteeing and improving the people’s well-being the guide and aim of what we do.”
China’s premier-in-waiting schooled in free thought
BEIJING (Reuters) – Where other top Chinese leaders can only stand around and look awkward in the presence of English-speaking dignitaries, premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang stands out for his casual and disarming command of the language.
Li’s English skills say more about the man who will run the world’s second-largest economy than just an ability to schmooze U.S. CEOs and European prime ministers – they were learned as a part of a surprisingly liberal university education.
Over three decades ago, Vice Premier Li entered prestigious Peking University, a member of the storied “class of ’77” who passed the first higher education entrance exams held after Mao Zedong’s convulsive Cultural Revolution, which had effectively put university education on hold.
More than any other Chinese party leader until now, Li, 57, was immersed in the intellectual and political ferment of the following decade of reform under Deng Xiaoping, which ended in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that were crushed by troops.
As a student at Peking University, Li befriended ardent pro-democracy advocates, some of whom later became outright challengers to party control. His friends included activists who went into exile after the June 1989 crackdown.
He was caught up in the fervor of political and economic reform, helping translate “The Due Process of Law” by Lord Denning, the famed English jurist, into Chinese.
Li arrived at university in early 1978 from Anhui province in eastern China, dirt-poor farming country where his father was an official and where he was sent to toil in the fields during the Cultural Revolution.
He chose law, a discipline silenced for years as a reactionary pursuit and in the late 1970s still steeped in Soviet-inspired doctrines.
In a brief memoir of his time at university, Li paid tribute to Gong Xiangrui, one of the few Chinese law professors schooled in the West to survive Mao’s purges, and recalled the heady atmosphere of the time.
“I was a student at Peking University for close to a decade, while a so-called ‘knowledge explosion’ was rapidly expanding,” Li wrote in an essay published in a 2008 book.
“I was searching for not just knowledge, but also to mould a temperament, to cultivate a scholarly outlook.”
But while classmates headed off to policy research, independent activism and even outright dissent, Li struck a more cautious course, abandoning ideas of study abroad and climbing the Communist Party’s Youth League, then a reformist-tinged ladder to higher office.
He rose in the Youth League while completing a master’s degree in law and then an economics doctorate under Professor Li Yining, a well-known advocate of market reforms.
In 1998, he was sent to Henan province, a poor and restless belt of rural central China, rising to become party secretary for two years. In late 2004, he was made party chief of Liaoning, a rustbelt province striving to attract investment and reinvent itself as a modern industrial heartland.
He was named to the powerful nine-member party Standing Committee in 2007.
Li’s patron, President Hu Jintao, began his tenure as leader with promises of respecting the law and constitution. But his government has since overseen a crackdown on dissent that resorted to widespread extra-judicial detentions.
Today, Li appears more at ease in small groups than in public. Businessmen and academics say they have been impressed with his diligent studies of policy.
After nearly a decade in power, Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao are due to retire from their party posts at the party congress which opens on Thursday and from the presidency and premiership in 2013.
Li’s ascent will mark an extraordinary rise for a man who as a youth worked on a commune in Anhui’s Fengyang County – notoriously poor even for Mao’s time and one of the first places to quietly revive private bonuses in farming in the late 1970s. By the time he left, Li was a Communist Party member and secretary of his production brigade.
In spite of his liberal past, Li’s elevation is unlikely to bring much change on the political front, where reforms would require more unified support for any serious change.
China’s leadership challenge in new era: douse “inequality volcano”
YANGCHANG, China (Reuters) – In the mountain village of Yangchang in the backwater province ofGuizhou in southwestern China, the roof of the Yang family home is cracked and about to cave in, held upright only by a few rickety tree trunks.
Nearly penniless after quitting their jobs in a coastal city, Yang Hechun and her husband recently returned to the village to care for a sickly 71-year-old grandmother and two young children.
“We can hardly afford to eat, never mind mend our house,” said Yang, over a meal of rice, chilli bean sprouts, peanuts and tofu. “We earn one yuan, then we spend one yuan.”
As China prepares for its once in a decade leadership transition at the 18th Communist Party Congress, which begins on Thursday in Beijing, the outside world sees an inexorably rising economic power: Beijing is now the world’s largest exporter, the second-biggest economy overall, and it controls over $3.2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves.
Yet the disconnect between those numbers and the lives of families like the Yangs lies at the core of the most vexing issues the country’s incoming leadership will confront: sustaining economic growth, rooting out corruption, narrowing the wealth gap, and preserving the party’s legitimacy in the face of mounting public grievances over decades of iron-fisted rule.
President Hu Jintao, in a speech at the opening of the party congress on Thursday, is expected to tout the country’s economic advances over the past decade, while acknowledging that China still faces many difficulties.
Reforms, most economists agree, will be vital to avoid stagnation and bigger socio-economic disruptions. What’s unclear is just how aggressively the incoming leadership will push new policies.
Though Yang Hechun acknowledges her family’s life has improved over the past decade, their continuing daily struggles resonate in villages, cities, campuses and factory floors throughout China.
$1.25 A DAY
At a roundabout in Bijie, the region of Guizhou where the Yangs live, a towering billboard bedecked with flowers and adorned with an image of Hu Jintao proclaims: “Explore, develop and pioneer … work hard to lift, reform and construct Bijie to a higher level.”
The Yangs’ village was designated an experimental zone for poverty alleviation policies and economic development in 1988, during president Hu Jintao’s stint as party chief of Guizhou.
Development over the past few years has brought a two-lane highway and bridges to the once remote region, along with electricity.
But the Yangs still have no running water, and food, education and medical expenses swiftly erode their meager earnings from harvesting chilli peppers and corn on a tiny farm.
Thirteen percent of China’s 1.3 billion people still live on less than $1.25 per day according to the United Nations Development Program and Guizhou has the poorest per capita income of any of the country’s provinces.
Beijing set aside 415 billion yuan ($66.5 billion) over the past five years to fund minimum livelihood allowances for China’s most needy, while welfare coverage — including basic health insurance — has broadened to include almost 95 percent of households, as have primary school fee waivers in more areas.
Yet, goodwill earned from those measures has been corroded by deeply held suspicions of corruption. Nationwide, over half a million grassroots officials were punished for graft and other so called “discipline violations” over the last five years.
The Yangs believe the failure to pave broken roads and build water pipes in their village is because of local corruption. Public works projects have been talked about for years but never built, even with state funding and contributions from residents.
Across China, the perception of widespread corruption is intensifying grassroots demands for official accountability —demands that the party all too often ignores.
Shen Zhiyun is a crippled former farmer who lives in the nearby village of Guole. He and other villagers were told by village officials recently that hundreds of hectares of farmland would be flooded to form a reservoir serving a new industrial estate in a nearby town.
Despite the threat to local livelihoods, district cadres never consulted the villagers, and will soon build a dam.
“We oppose it, but we also can’t oppose it. That’s how things are in China,” said Shen. “They eat the people and don’t even spit out the bones … those officials with wolf’s fangs.”
The sense of powerlessness Shen expresses is widespread, and poses, in the minds of some analysts, a broad threat to the party’s cherished stability.
As vast as the income disparity is between the rich and poor — Beijing hasn’t published official inequality statistics for over a decade, but the United Nations estimates the gap has grown steadily wider over the last decade — the maltreatment of ordinary Chinese citizens by officials may be the more dangerous flashpoint.
“The main challenge is not income inequality, it’s power inequality, and it’s much less easy to deal with,” said Martin Whyte, a Harvard University sociologist and author of a book on China and its disparities.
“Keeping this power inequality volcano dormant may be much more difficult than keeping the income inequality volcano under control, since to do so would require not simply new programs and financial resources, but fundamental political reforms.”
Even in the more prosperous parts of China, the pressures on the government from the bottom up are no less relentless. Two years ago, in the factory town of Xiaolan in the Pearl River Delta — China’s factory for the world — workers at a Honda Lock auto parts manufacturer went on strike, weary of their low-paid, grinding work.
Word of their action — a rare, early instance of a strike that crippled production at a multinational corporation in China — spread rapidly on social media. It inspired other factory workers across the country and forced many firms and local authorities to respond by raising minimum wages and benefits.
At Honda Lock, pay has increased 30 per cent since 2010, including increases in housing and transport subsidies.
Lin Wenwu is one of the workers who benefited from the strike. He makes about $560 a month now. A new desktop computer sits in the small one-room flat he and his wife rent, and he zips around Xiaolan on a newly purchased black motorcycle.
Still, Lin’s not satisfied. He is one of China’s army of migrant workers — 150 million strong — who largely remain second class citizens, denied welfare benefits that accrue to local city dwellers through a household registration (or “hukou”) system, an outdated policy from the Mao era originally intended to control rural-urban drift.
The system means Lin’s two children can’t get free schooling in Xiaolan, so he leaves them behind in his home province of Guangxi, where they’re cared for by relatives. He sees them roughly three times a year for several weeks.
“I miss them,” he said. “We hope that after the (party congress) the leaders will do more to improve the livelihoods of people like us.”
Back in Guizhou, huddled around a stove, the Yangs have little faith in their political leaders. The family is wondering how to raise the 40,000 yuan needed to rebuild the roof, now propped up by bricks and sawed-off tree-trunks.
So far, local village officials have rebuffed requests for a construction subsidy of 5,000 yuan normally eligible to most villagers, unless the family first coughs up 1,000 yuan to facilitate the application.
“Several neighbors paid up last year, but they’ve haven’t gotten any money back at all,” said Yang.
“Sometimes I feel the poorest people get nothing, and the richest get everything. We can only rely on ourselves.”