The 18th congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) closes in Beijing this week. Its main purpose was to demonstrate an orderly transition of power at the heart of China’s ruling class.
Under Mao Zedong such meetings were rare—just two took place between 1949 and 1969. Leadership and policy issues were settled by brute force.
The post-Mao leadership has been determined to establish clear rules for settling disputes and changing personnel. These include CCP congresses every five years and compulsory retirement from central leadership posts at 70 years old.
The Congress brings together CCP members from across China, supposedly to represent all the organisation’s members. Apparently some need more representation than others. This year six of China’s 100 billionaires are in attendance, but just 26 migrant workers out of 200 million.
Not all CCP members are part of the ruling class—but the ruling class is organised in and through the CCP. Leading politicians, managers, military officers and civil servants use the Congress to explain their strategy to the wider audience of officials who will carry it out.
In theory, the Congress determines the policy and the leadership of the CCP. In reality, most important decisions have already been made by the time the Congress meets.
This was shown by the way that it was postponed for almost a month while senior leaders decided the fate of Bo Xilai, the former boss of the southwestern province of Chongqing.
He was sacked from that job earlier this year accused of corruption, kidnapping and torture. He is now assumed to be under arrest and will probably go on trial in the new year.
The Congress will end by revealing the new Politburo Standing Committee—the seven or nine men who will run the CCP for the next five years.
Most of the committee’s members will be new, as so many have reached retirement age. There has been fierce competition for these places. Bo Xilai was in line for one of these places before his arrest.
This is not a fight between factions split along policy lines. The CCP is a huge bureaucracy and you don’t rise in a bureaucracy by having firm beliefs you won’t compromise.
Nevertheless, there are hard decisions to be made, and no easy answers in sight. For once, Margaret Thatcher’s mantra is right—the status quo is not an option.
China’s growth rate has slowed to under 8 percent this year which is still way ahead of every other major power. But for China it’s the lowest figure for almost 20 years and shows how the country has been hit by the 2008 world crisis.
The fear is that growth will drop even more. A few years ago China’s ruler’s introduced a massive public spending programme to halt the slide, but they merely slowed it. They also have to respond to public pressure for change, particularly in tackling inequality and official corruption.
More than 80 percent of people agreed with the statement “the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer” in a recent opinion poll. And over half of those polled thought that official corruption was a major problem.
One of the biggest changes in Chinese society over the last 20 years has been the growth of public protest. Last month, in the eastern city of Ningbo, 10,000 people demonstrated against a chemical factory that would cause severe pollution—and got it shut down.
Strikes and riots by employees of the Foxconn company—makers of the iPad and iPhone—have seen workers’ wages rise by up to 50 percent this year.
And in western China, thousands of Tibetan school students marched against Chinese rule last weekend, in one of the biggest protests for years.
The government can ride out individual protests as long as they don’t link together. But it cannot uproot the official corruption and inequality that powers each local protest so it has to live with the constant fear of a bigger eruption.
China may have a new leadership, but they face all of the old problems without any clear solutions.