China's Alarmingly Murky Leadership Transition

China's Alarmingly Murky Leadership Transition

Imagine a presidential election in which there's only one candidate, and he's said nothing about his intentions or policies. That's the reality in China right now.


With the media focused on the U.S. presidential election, we would do well to remember the other great political event of the year — coincidentally happening just two days later. The 18th National Congress of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) is scheduled to start on November 8th. And while we can expect the U.S. election to provide a choice for distinct policy alternatives and a clear result, the outcome of the Congress of China's Communist Party, which takes place every five years, will be far more murky. And that's dangerous — not just for the rising superpower, but also for the rest of the world — including foreign investors in mainland China, and the administration in Washington, whether it is headed by Obama or Romney.


We will know some things about the transition, starting with the names of the people (almost certainly all men) who will be in charge of the last major country run by a Communist Party, whose economic evolution has arguably been the most important global event since the end of the Cold War.


We will know if the long-awaited ascension of the "princeling," Xi Jinping, to become Party Leader and then State President will be confirmed. Right now, it looks as if only an unthinkable political earthquake could stop him — though a touch of mystery was added when he suddenly dropped out of sight without explanation for two weeks in September, for what may have been either health reasons or to focus on preparing for the Congress.


We will know where the putative next Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, a protégé of the outgoing leader, Hu Jintao, ranks in the Party hierarchy.


We will know if the membership of the top decision-making body, the Standing Committee of the Party Politburo, is being cut from the current unwieldy nine people to a more cohesive seven.


For those fascinated by such things, we will know if the Party still officially cleaves to Mao Zedong Thought or if it has decided to ditch that ideological obeisance to the Great Helmsman who brought his country to the brink of ruin, but whose face still looks out over Tiananmen Square and adorns banknotes.

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