Superficially, the only shift in the format of the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party from, say, the 13th congress 20 years ago, was sartorial. The male delegates were clad in Western suits this time as opposed to the Mao jackets worn in days of yore.
But the real sign of the progress that has been made in the intervening years came right at the end of the congress: When the new line-up of the Politburo Standing Committee was revealed, there was no clear indication as to which cadre would step into President Hu Jintao’s shoes in 2012.
Contrary to what some might say, this is a good thing. It suggests that the political process is transforming, however gradually, from being personality-based and top-down to something that involves checks, balances and factional interests. Factional politics without the threat of purges – does that in effect mean democracy with Asian characteristics?
On the other hand, Hu’s successor is really only going to be one of two newcomers to the standing committee – Xi Jinping or Li Keqiang. Seeing Xi emerge on to the stage ahead of Li as the new committee was presented, the tea leaf-reading China-watcher contingent concluded that Xi is the favorite to be the next party general-secretary with Li taking the consolation prize of the premiership.
Maybe that’s the way it will shake out and maybe not – it is a lot harder now to put bets on Chinese politics than it used to be. This is all part of the transition the Chinese Communist Party is going through, as it faces the fact that it is ruling a society far more complex and prosperous than that ruled by any communist party anywhere in the world ever before.
The early generations of party leaders were all peasants. They were followed by cadres schooled in the Soviet Union – most of them engineers by training. Today, the rising stars in Chinese communism include those who have spent time at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
That doesn’t mean for sure that the generation of leaders who follow the Xi-Li era (2012-2022) are going to have English names like Jack Zhang or Henry Wang. But then again, who knows?