After a final count it appears that 2,268 party members attended the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing this past week. They clapped appropriately during and after each speech and gave every appearance of complete agreement and uniformity. But the only thing uniform about these "chosen ones" is their dark black and blue suits. Each has his own agenda -- and political patron. Secrecy, however, is the guiding principle that links all these representatives -- and yet there are signs that expose much of the conflict within.
If there was a theme to this congress that could not be hidden, it had to be corruption. The specter of the dismissed politburo member, the popular and powerful Bo Xilai, and his deals with the British businessman who was killed by Bo's wife, hung over the entire session. Premier Wen Jiabao's family had been charged in a New York Times article as having accumulated $2.7 billion during his political career. The Times' Chinese language website was blocked as punishment, but the damage had been done and most observers could not find strong reasons to disagree with the general figures.
Without pointing to a specific example, Hu Jintao, the outgoing president, acknowledged the corruption problem in general by forcefully calling for indictment of all corrupt officials no matter their rank. Hu went so far as to warn the congress that corruption could cause the fall of the state. This was a message that everyone understood and it is expected that quite a few foreign bank accounts will be undergoing review.
All this was done to great applause, of course, except for the most senior Party member, the retired former leader, 86-year-old Jiang Zemin, who rarely has been seen in the last ten years. Jiang, whose presence at the congress surprised the entire foreign press, conspicuously kept his clapping in approval to a very limited degree. His careful lack of enthusiasm made Jiang's appearance even more impressive. The fact that the expected new Party leader and China's presumptive next president, Xi Jinping, has long been characterized as a protégé of Jiang signified not only the latter's continued influence, but a division in Politburo direction.
Supposedly that direction is to include a return to a greater emphasis on what is referred to as "market --oriented economic policies," as opposed to Hu Jintao's tendency to encourage more centralized, large government-owned industrial and commercial institutions. The warning that such a shift might be in the making came when Zhang Ming, a well-known political science professor at Renmin University, Beijing, publicly stated that "China's economic situation is not very good…To fix this the best method for China would be to open its state-owned enterprises (SOEs) by breaking them down into private enterprises." He then suggested obscurely that this action would bring in "enough capital for actual political reform." This reform, he said without clarification, is necessary as inaction would produce severe consequences.
Provocative statements such as Professor Zhang's are viewed as purposely exaggerated in order to draw public attention to the broader political concept of the economic issue he sought to address. Political science academics in China do not strike out on their own to attack the principles of state enterprise without strong backing. It has been suggested that Jiang Zemin was more than willing to come out of his "retirement" to stimulate a return to market-oriented policies for which he had become so famous in his presidency. Prof. Zhang effectively set the scene.
The body that directs the operations of the Politburo is its Standing Committee. Here, too, Mr. Jiang seems to have waved a political wand and produced a majority of the candidates for the projected seven spots. Most important is the reported alignment with Jiang Zemin of the next Communist Party chief and presumptive President of the PRC, the youthful (59-year-old) Xi Jinping. It will not be easy sailing for Xi even with the support of the reinvigorated Mr. Jiang. The Chinese press has noted there will be twenty ex-Standing Committee members, all of whom will want to exert their influence in some manner.
Theories abound in Beijing over what exactly will be the new direction in China's administration. How long will the aged Jiang continue to exert his renewed interest and political strength? Will Xi Jinping, having been well launched, simply proceed along on his own? Strengthening market orientation may not be as assured as might be expected. Jiang's support for five of the seven men in the Standing Committee does not necessarily guarantee that even this player roster will maintain a deep commitment to major change from centralized state enterprise to greater private ownership driven by market principles. Hu Jintao's acolytes may yet fully respond.
More clarification is likely between now and next March, when Xi Jinping is to be formally installed as president. There'll be a strong effort to avoid goring too many important oxen while, however, making sure that the proper advantages are distributed and important positions divided along the most effective lines.
This is China, after all, where sophistication and stark reality mix in an arcane political stew. It is certainly not an environment for the faint of heart nor the marginal talents of the current Washington foreign policy leadership.