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A New Politburo Standing Committee Born in the Dark

By Adam Minter
November 15, 2012 3:00 PM EST

The first big scoop provided to reporters at the Great Hall of the People this morning in China was courtesy of the stage managers.

Under orders from somebody clearly in the know, they had placed seven numbers on the stage -- where the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body, were expected to stand after being trotted out for the news media. That cleared up a lot: For months, rumors had run rampant that the nine-member body would be reduced by two.

Much of the suspense surrounding the announcement of the new leadership was lost five years ago. In 2007, Xi Jinping -- the newly named general secretary -- became a member of the Politburo (along with his future No. 2, Li Keqiang). The son of a revolutionary leader, and a diligent, ambitious bureaucrat who’d worked his way up from modest village posts to running some of China’s most economically dynamic provinces, Xi was the perfect compromise candidate to be at the helm of a badly divided Communist Party leadership.

Still, that left five -- or perhaps seven -- places that became subject to years of speculation and shortlists that were steadily whittled down by guesses both educated and not. How does a shortlisted bureaucrat land on the committee? In the absence of any reporting from inside the Chinese leadership compounds where the decisions are presumably made, the best that can be said is: infighting, negotiation and, eventually, consensus.

For all the opacity in the leadership transition process, there have been some hints as to who took part in the negotiating. Over the last few months, the frequent appearances of former President Jiang Zemin -- officially retired in 2002 and subject to death rumors as recently as July 2011 -- suggested to many that the old man remained both powerful and determined to push China away from the legacy of his successor, Hu Jintao, and back toward the high-growth optimism of his own 13-year reign.

What was so terrible about Hu in the eyes of Jiang and his allies? Like everything related to the current leadership change, this is a matter of speculation. During Hu’s reign -- as compared with Jiang’s -- the role of the state in China’s economy expanded significantly, leading many to believe that a rejuvenated state-owned sector was one cause of China’s economic slowdown over the last year. Growing social unrest, driven at least in part by a widening income gap, is also laid at the feet of Hu and his allies. Finally, there are the demands and presumed rights of China’s princelings -- the powerful and wealthy children and grandchildren of China’s revolutionary elite. Hu, of modest background, was not a princeling; Xi and many of the shortlisted candidates for the new Politburo Standing Committee are. Jiang, meanwhile, was a colleague and friend to many of the princelings’ parents, and is often viewed as a strong patron of their careers and interests -- a position that has placed him in conflict with Hu.

Memoirs may one day reveal how and why the final committee was chosen. For now, it can reasonably be assumed that some tumult was involved. Yesterday, at the final session of the weeklong People’s Congress that led up to this morning’s announcement, Hu and the other, usually unflappable members of the outgoing Politburo Standing Committee looked pale, exhausted and ready to retire, with some slumped in their seats, mouths partly agape. This year of infighting, highlighted by the fall of Bo Xilai, a princeling widely believed to have once been shortlisted for the Politburo, is probably only the start.

The new, presumably energized Politburo Standing Committee was scheduled to appear in the numbered slots at 11 a.m. Roughly 50 minutes past the hour, late enough to have been a matter of comment on China’s social networks, they walked out in a single- file, evenly spaced line that looked as if it’d been arranged by a hall monitor. There were no surprises -- the shortlist had grown very short in recent weeks -- and there was little interesting, visually, about what amounted to showing the Chinese people what was behind Curtain 1 -- and only Curtain 1.

Still, many of the Chinese reporters and other attendees applauded and, incongruously, several of the new Politburo members (not Xi or Li) clapped back. And why not celebrate? For all of the mystery surrounding this transition, it is -- for now -- only the second peaceful leadership transition in the history of modern China. That it is, presumably, over is surely a relief to everyone who fought over it.

Alas, so long as the recipe for pulling off a peaceful transition remains tantamount to a state secret, nobody outside China’s circle of power has reason to believe it can be repeated. For the sake of China’s and the global community’s stability, here’s to hoping the new Politburo, born in the dark, is willing to turn on a few lights.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.

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