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November 15, 2012

Retirement looms for most of the men named to China’s new ruling elite

Faced with mounting social pressures and concerns about corruption in the ranks of the ruling class, the Chinese Communist Party on Thursday stacked its all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee with men who are nearing retirement.

Faced with mounting social pressures and concerns about corruption in the ranks of the ruling class, the Chinese Communist Party on Thursday stacked its all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee with men who are nearing retirement.

That means that the majority of seats on the key ruling committee in China went to officials who’ll probably step down when the group is up for reshuffling in five years, though it is impossible to know what the implications will be. Most of the new standing committee members are relatively conservative, a sign that the Chinese Communist Party is not ready for political reform.

“I’m relatively disappointed by this list,” said Chen Ziming, a Beijing political analyst who in the 1990s served prison time for his role in the 1989 protests on Tiananmen Square that ended in bloody crackdown. “Some people with good reputations . . . did not make it.”

Wang Zhengxu, an expert on Chinese politics and the deputy director of the China Policy Institute at England’s University of Nottingham, raised the possibility that the lineup was formed by seniority “to silence the rivalry” after factions hit a deadlock on building the committee.

“But the net effect is that . . . some of the more well-known reformers are excluded,” Wang said.

China had been waiting for months for the announcement of the new standing committee, only two of whose members were certain before the committee was announced to the news media Thursday morning: incoming Party Secretary Xi Jinping, 59, and his premier, Li Keqiang, 58.

The remainder of the committee was unknown, however, and people here watched in hopes of determining what sort of policies China might pursue in the coming years.

One thing that became clear with the announcement was that Xi, who will head the committee for the next decade, will have more leeway to push through his agenda than did the previous leader, Hu Jintao. Unlike his own predecessor, who lingered in the job for two years, Hu on Thursday stepped down from his post as the head of the party’s Central Military Commission. That post passed to Xi.

In addition, the standing committee was cut in size from nine to seven members and is filled with men aligned with a Xi ally, former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. That will likely make the group’s consensus-driven model easier to manage.

Still, the makeup of the committee gave little promise of serious change. In addition to the composition of the ruling body, the murky process by which it was selected suggested that while the Communist Party frequently speaks about “intra-party democracy,” it remains mired in politics guided by backroom deals and the politicking of influential elders and factional spats.

In that arena, it appeared that former leader Jiang bested outgoing leader Hu. Of the seven members, Xi and four others are considered members of Jiang’s camp. Allies of Hu, including Premier Li Keqiang, hold only two spots.

It’s not known in what direction Xi, the 59-year-old son of a prominent party leader, will try to guide the nation. His speech after the committee was unveiled was both surprisingly brief and free of jargon for a top Chinese leader.

Xi spoke three times of the “great renewal” of the Chinese nation. Time will tell if that term was meant as a sop to nationalists or perhaps a call for some sort of broader transformation.

Xi warned, as had Hu before him, that the Communist Party “faces many severe challenges.”

He listed problems with corruption, bribe taking, an undue emphasis on formality and officials “being divorced from the people.”

The dominance of the 86-year-old Jiang in the selection process had its own mystery. Just last year Jiang was rumored to have died or fallen into a vegetative state, but then he made a series of public appearances recently and he or those around him were said to be heavily involved in the push and pull of negotiations over committee slots.

In addition to Xi, Jiang was seen as having supported four men named to the standing committee: Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang, 66; Shanghai party chief Yu Zhengsheng, 67; Tianjin party chief Zhang Gaoli, 66; and 64-year-old Vice Premier Wang Qishan.

In addition to Premier Li, the other Hu ally on the committee is Liu Yunshan, 65, who’d been heading the party’s propaganda department.

In the opaque world of Chinese politics, however, such distinctions are often blurrier than analysts might present them as being. Still, it seemed a fair assumption from the names on the list that Jiang had a better day than did Hu.

The leadership under Xi is expected to seek to tamp down tensions through a variety of social management measures, perhaps including a revision to rural land law that would help alleviate a frequent flashpoint for unrest, more closely regulating planning for projects like chemical plants that have sparked large protests, and doing further work to make the legal system fairer.

Two potential candidates considered bellwethers for change: Wang Yang, the 57-year-old party secretary of the coastal Guangdong province, and Li Yuanchao, the 62-year-old head of the party’s organization department, did not make the standing committee.

But they were given seats on the 25-member Politburo. Given the targeted retirement age of 68, the pair could make the next standing committee in five years, when every member but Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will presumably leave.

Officially, the standing committee was elected by the Communist Party’s central committee, a body of 205 full members who were said to have been selected the day before by a party congress. In reality, while the central committee was reportedly voted in during a process that involved a small amount of competition, the Politburo and its standing committee were formed by closed-door jockeying.

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