China will have a new president — if he can be located.
If all proceeds on schedule, on November 8, 2012, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) through its 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China will choose Xi Jinping to replace Hu Jintao as president for the next ten years. An initial reaction might be that this would appear to be simply yet again another internal disciplined and prescribed, if not pre-ordained, Chinese Communist Party personnel reassignment.
That’s what they would have liked, but it’s far from the fact. To begin with the congress was supposed to occur in early October. This is what had been planned since last spring. Unexpected delays like this just don’t happen in a government and political structure that depends on apparent orderliness and thus a certain predictability. When this requisite consistency is disrupted, problems reverberate throughout the system. A crucial presidential year was the worst time for the established form to be bent.
In March a bombshell exploded. Bo Xilai, one of China’s acknowledged future leaders, a regional party secretary, a princeling — son of one of the Revolution’s trusted comrades — was taken into custody along with his wife and Chonqing’s police chief. The wife of Bo Xilai was quickly convicted in camera of participation in the murder of a well-known British businessman with whom the couple had had extensive business and personal dealings over the years. Bo’s role as a high profile party leader was particularly important because of his populist appeal centered on his encouragement of a highly personalized nostalgia for the imagined halcyon days of Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s leadership.
Bo Xilai had begun to be suspected of a personal ambition for increasing Maoist autocratic rule contrary to the political consensus that has marked Chinese governance for nearly twenty years. While the murder of the Briton was the incident that focused international attention, it has been Bo’s political ambition and strong effort to evolve a popular cult of personal support that has so impacted what was supposed to be a smooth transition to Xi Jinping’s presidency this autumn.
As if the Bo incident were not enough, Xi Jinping, always a socially available politician, went missing in September. No sign of Xi has turned up in spite of feverish searching on the part of Chinese and foreign journalists. The best guess as of this writing is that Xi underwent some form of non-life threatening — though possibly very debilitating — surgery. Prostate surgery has been suggested. Another theory, not so generally publicized, is that this next president is involved in extensive and super secret negotiations with China’s military leaders (with whom he has had close ties in the past) to evolve knotty political military problems that must be addressed before the 18th Party Congress. In any case, the run-up to the Congress has hardly been the well-organized affair that people had come to expect of the Chinese Communist Party.
Not discussed as much as the Bo Xilai affair, but of related importance and political impact, has been the reduction in status of Zhou Yongkang, the formerly powerful head of domestic security as a member of the controlling nine-member standing committee of the Politburo. Even though Zhou was due to step down by the end of 2012 , his relinquishing of operational control of all aspects of internal security half a year early was seen as related to his earlier sponsorship of Bo Xilai for promotion to the standing committee. A purge of some sort would seem to be in process.
All of these things — and more — reflect a broad scale struggle over the ideological direction of the country. Demographics have added an unplanned-for negative aspect to China’s growth. The aging population has been accompanied by a more vocal and less easily directed younger workforce. At the same time increased wages have not had the salutary effect that might be expected on worker attitudes. As the gap between the wealthy and the poor has grown obvious, material acquisition has become more and more an everyday objective of Chinese life rather than the long-time acceptance of shared deprivation.
The breakdown of governance on a local level has been precipitated by the central authority’s requirement that local governments have the financial responsibility to fund stimulus objectives announced by Beijing. According to Amnesty International, to accomplish this demand the communities — especially in rural areas — have taken to evicting small property owners, seizing the land, and then selling it to developers. While village demonstrations have become commonplace, there has been little in the way of Beijing taking action to find alternatives to this method of gaining revenue by exercising the ultimate in local governments’ rights of eminent domain.
These among many other issues will face the new administration of Xi Jinping — when and if he shows up. In the meantime, the current leadership of Hu Jintao has chosen to divert the Chinese people’s attention to the East China Sea and the ownership dispute over the islands called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China. Japan took over the island chain in the late 1800s. Similar expansions were rectified after WW2, but not these islands. Beijing wants them and Tokyo isn’t budging.
The island contest is a perfect distraction for the PRC at this moment when its economy is suffering a slowdown as China’s cheap labor-built exports to a world suffering from its own economic problems appears to be no longer an engine for growth. Even China’s falsely valued currency isn’t working as well as a financial gimmick as it once did. Oh well, they were warned!!!
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It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
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