China's Communist Party Concludes Its Congress

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BEIJING -- Moving to complete only its second smooth leadership transition in more than six decades of rule, the Chinese Communist Party ended a weeklong conclave on Wednesday as its departing general secretary, Hu Jintao, prepared to hand the reins of power to Xi Jinping, son of a revered revolutionary guerrilla leader who was also an architect of China's economic transformation.

For this nation of 1.3 billion, the transition culminates a particularly tumultuous period plagued by scandals and intense political rivalry that presented the party with some of its greatest challenges since the student uprising of 1989. On Thursday morning, after a confirmation vote by the party's new Central Committee, Mr. Xi, 59, is expected to march onto a stage at the Great Hall of the People accompanied by at least six other party officials who will form the Politburo Standing Committee, the elite group that makes crucial decisions on the economy, foreign policy and other major issues.

"I think the emphasis is on continuity over change this time around," said Bo Zhiyue, a scholar of Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore.

The ascension of Mr. Xi and other members of the "red nobility" to the top posts means that China's princelings, the children of notable Communist officials, have come into their own as a powerful political force. Because of their parentage, they believe themselves to be the heirs of the revolution that succeeded in 1949, endowed with a mandate of authority.

Several political insiders say Mr. Hu, 69, is also likely to hand over the post of civilian chairman of the military to Mr. Xi, which would be the first time since the promotion of the ill-fated Hua Guofeng in 1976 that a Chinese leader has taken office at the same time as head of the party and of the military. That would give Mr. Xi a stronger base from which to consolidate his power, even as he grapples with the continuing influence of party elders.

Mr. Xi is facing a growing chorus of calls from Chinese elites to support greater openness in China's economic and political systems, which critics say have stagnated in the last decade under Mr. Hu, despite the country's emergence as the world's second-largest economy and a growing regional power.

Mr. Xi is known for shunning the spotlight and being a skilled consensus-builder. He spent his childhood in the leadership compounds of Beijing, but was forced to toil in a village of cave homes in the western Shaanxi Province for seven years during the Cultural Revolution, when his father was purged.

His first job was as an aide to a top general; he rose through party ranks in the provinces, including Fujian and Zhejiang, two coastal regions known for entrepreneurship and exchanges with Taiwan. Mr. Xi's career and his family background have enabled him to build close personal ties to some military leaders as well.

He is married to a well-known singer, Peng Liyuan; they have a daughter attending Harvard under a pseudonym.

As for the departing, Mr. Hu, if he gives up the military chairman post it could set an important institutional precedent for future successions and help put his legacy in a more favorable light. In Chinese politics, retired leaders try to maximize their influence well into old age, either by clinging to titles or by making their opinions known on important decisions.

Jiang Zemin, Mr. Hu's predecessor as party chief and president, did both: he held onto the military post for two years after giving up his party title in 2002, which led to heightened friction within the party. In recent months, he has worked to get his protégés installed on the Standing Committee, which is usually assembled through horse-trading by party elders and current leaders.

The committee is expected to be trimmed to seven members from the current nine. One reason for that change is that some party leaders, including Mr. Xi, believe that an overrepresentation of interests on the committee has led to gridlock in decision-making. The smaller committee would also mean a downgrading of the party post that controls the security apparatus, which some party officials asserted had grown too powerful.

The most probable list of committee members has allies of Mr. Jiang in five of seven seats, reflecting his considerable power even though he was said to be severely ill last year.

Li Keqiang, a protégé of Mr. Hu, is expected to get a top-ranking committee seat on Thursday and the state title of prime minister next spring when Mr. Xi becomes president. Mr. Li and Mr. Xi are the only members on the outgoing standing committee likely to remain part of the group. The five favorites to join them in the new committee are Zhang Dejiang, party chief of Chongqing; Yu Zhengsheng, party chief of Shanghai; Liu Yunshan, director of the propaganda department; Zhang Gaoli, party chief of Tianjin; and Wang Qishan, a vice premier.

One princeling said earlier to be a contender for the committee, Bo Xilai, was felled last spring by a scandal after his wife was accused of murdering a British businessman.

The lineup is stocked with conservatives and older officials. An unspoken age limit for party leaders means that several of them would have to retire at the next party congress, in 2017, at which point Mr. Xi might have an opening to get other allies appointed.

Xinhua, the state news agency, announced Wednesday that Mr. Wang was joining the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, a group charged with investigating corruption and other infractions. Political insiders said Mr. Wang was expected to become the head of the commission.

For months, there was talk that Mr. Wang would get an economic portfolio, because of his deep experience in the finance industry, but he appears to have been pushed aside for that job, which some analysts have said bodes ill for further economic liberalization. But Mr. Wang's network in the finance industry could be a powerful tool in the corruption investigations.

Mr. Wang joins Mr. Xi as one of three or four princelings on the projected committee. The princelings are not a coherent political faction, and their ranks are rife with personal and ideological rivalries, but their family connections may mean a greater confidence with wielding power and pressing for bolder changes. But that same class has grown wealthy off China's political economy, in which officials and state-owned enterprises work hand in hand to reap benefits, often at the expense of private entrepreneurship.

Even those princelings who support liberalizing the economy or the political system still believe in the primacy of the party, and their push for various reforms is seen as an effort to ensure the 91-year-old party's survival.

"These people around Xi Jinping who advise him and with whom he's close, they do want reform, but on the condition that they maintain the rule of the Communist Party," said Zhang Lifan, a historian and son of a former minister. "They consider the Communist Party and its rule a heritage from their fathers. So they're not willing to risk losing it. They have limitations on how far they want reform to go."

Mr. Xi will have to spend his first years building a power base, limiting the opportunity to make major policy moves early in his tenure. He might support a further opening of the economy in his first five-year term, some political insiders said. If he or other leaders want to experiment with the political system, they would do that in his second term at the earliest, those people said.

Mr. Xi and the incoming leaders will also have to contend with the continuing influence of party elders, including Mr. Hu and Mr. Jiang. With the end of the 18th Party Congress on Wednesday, there are now about 20 retired standing committee members, many of whom want a say in major decisions.

But Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an American businessman who wrote an authorized biography of Jiang Zemin and remains close to senior officials, said he believed Mr. Xi would act fast on some policy decisions because of the pressures for China to create a more sustainable economic system, one that relies less on investment in large projects and exports and more on domestic consumption and private business.

"The risks of not reforming are now higher than the risks of reforming," Mr. Kuhn said.

Under Mr. Hu, China remained the world's fastest-growing major economy, but inequalities within society widened, despite Mr. Hu's constant lip service to his theory of "scientific development," whose aim was to promote more equitable distribution of the benefits of growth.

On Wednesday, at the closing ceremony of the 18th Party Congress, where Mr. Hu and Mr. Jiang sat side by side, the party announced that "scientific development" would be canonized on the same level as the signature theories of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Mr. Jiang. The party also announced an amendment to the constitution to promote "ecological progress," a nod to the need for China to grapple with the vast environmental degradation that has been a cost of growth.

Around 7 p.m., the names of the 205 full members of the incoming Central Committee and 171 alternates were announced on China Central Television. Fifty-six percent were new members, and women and ethnic minority members were overwhelmingly relegated to the alternates list.

Xinhua reported on Tuesday that the 2,268 delegates of the congress had held a preliminary vote on Central Committee members that eliminated 8 percent of the candidates. This was the same percentage eliminated in a vote at the last congress, in 2007, and critics said it revealed dismal prospects for true intraparty democracy.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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