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The Life of the Party

Nothing illustrates the dichotomy between hopes and reality in China than the hype around the upcoming 17th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress. The CCP calls a “congress” every five years to pick a new Central Committee, choose the nine members who comprise the Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s supreme ruling council, and thrash out new initiatives and policies. Because it is almost certain that CCP General Secretary, President, and commander-in-chief Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao will receive second five-year terms, all eyes are on whether Hu will succeed in elevating one or more of his younger allies to the Standing Committee.

The backroom struggle is intense, but it now looks like the Party Secretary of Liaoning Province, Li Keqiang, and of Shanghai, Xi Jinping, will be promoted. Li, 52, deemed a “Hu clone,” has long been groomed by Hu for the top leadership. Both men are former first secretaries of the Communist Youth League, one of Hu’s major power bases.

But the sudden emergence of the 54-year-old Xi, a former Zhejiang Province party boss who became Shanghai’s top cadre seven months ago, says much about the CCP’s delicate factional balance and the behind-the-scenes jockeying. Despite his apparent grip on most levers of power, Hu lacks the authority of a Deng Xiaoping, and thus must strike a balance among the CCP’s major factions regarding the division of spoils at the top. Xi enjoys the backing of incumbent PSC members associated with the Shanghai faction once led by ex-president Jiang Zemin, as well as the majority of party elders.

As the only son of liberal party elder Xi Zhongxun, Xi is also a ranking CCP “Princeling.” The low-key Shanghai party boss is acceptable to Hu partly because the elder Xi was a comrade-in-arms of late liberal party chief Hu Yaobang, Hu’s former mentor. But there is little question that Hu would prefer Li Keqiang to become the only member of what is called the “Fifth Generation” represented on the PSC.