Alexander F. Yuan/AP
Chinese Communist Party leaders attend the opening session of the 18th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Thursday. The meeting marks the beginning of a once-in-a-decade transfer of power.
Two days after the U.S. election, another major political development is unfolding on the other side of the world. China began its once-in-a-decade transition of power on Thursday with the opening of its 18th Communist Party Congress.
With its lack of personalities or political platforms, it is almost diametrically opposed to the hurly-burly of U.S. elections. In Beijing, the message was about fighting corruption and keeping the Communist Party in power.
The Communist Party's Congress is a highly choreographed political ritual that plays out in the Great Hall of the People. The control over appearances is such that even the tea ladies moved in synchronicity, like dancers gliding across the stage as they flitted along the serried ranks of China's top leaders, during a 1 1/2 hour swansong speech by Hu Jintao, China's president and the outgoing party leader.
Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images
During his speech Thursday, Chinese President Hu Jintao, who is also the top party official, warned delegates that corruption could be "fatal" to the party and even cause "the fall of the state."
During his speech Thursday, Chinese President Hu Jintao, who is also the top party official, warned delegates that corruption could be "fatal" to the party and even cause "the fall of the state." Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images
Emphasis On 'Cleaner' Government
Taking aim at corruption, he warned officials that political integrity is "a major political issue of great concern to the people."
"If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state," warned Hu.
In the printed version of his speech, he also warned officials to "exercise strict self-discipline and strengthen education and supervision over their family and staff."
This was a coded reference to the scandalous downfall of high-flying politician Bo Xilai, who is awaiting trial after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and possible involvement in covering up the murder of a British businessman, for which his wife is now serving a suspended death sentence.
Outside the hall, the buzzword among the 2,000-plus delegates was hope.
"The people of the whole country will unite to strive under the leaders of the great Communist Party," said delegate He Yonglin. "China's people are full of hope. China's future is full of hope."
Another delegate, Lin Liu, vowed, "We're going to build a cleaner government, with cleaner officials, cleaner politics. This is in line with people's wishes."
A Complicated Succession
China's former president, Jiang Zemin, was center stage at the party congress.
He'd been rumored dead last year. But recently, the state-run press has lauded his visits to the opera and even his singing abilities. Such a public comeback is both personal and political, with reports that he is stacking the new leadership team — the next Politburo Standing Committee — with his supporters.
That could stymie reform attempts by the man set to be the party's new leader, Xi Jinping, according to Kenneth Lieberthal, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"For these people coming in, there will be two generations of predecessors looking over their shoulders. Those generations will have cut the deals that will have put together the team that is now taking over," Lieberthal says. "This team is not Xi Jinping's team."
That team will be unveiled next week, after the close of the party congress. But it's clear the succession process is still hostage to patronage politics, says Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese politics and head of the University of Sydney's China Studies Center.
"What strikes me is, in a sense ... the Communist Party has returned to its historic template — it's a state within a state," says Brown.
"You get almost tribal politics — tribal networks — where you have people round you [that] you look after, almost like mafia politics," he says. "That's almost a complete counternarrative to the one I'm sure they would like."
Incoming Leader Remains A Mystery
Thursday was Hu Jintao's day: His successor, Xi Jinping, didn't say a single word. That, too, is according to plan. But his low profile means few know what to expect.
Lieberthal says that "for a person in Xi's position, it's frankly extremely hard to know how reformist he is, how determined he is, how tough he is."
"He's risen to the top of a very tough political system, so he's obviously no schmo," Lieberthal says. "But for what he'll actually be like, he's gotten to the top because he's very good at concealing that."
Change may be coming. There were pledges of economic reform during Thursday's speeches, with promises that incomes would double within the decade to 2020. There were also vows of political reform, with promises that intraparty democracy would be intensified and officials selected "in a democratic, open, competitive and merits-based way."
As a parting shot, Hu made sure to outline the limits of reform. Among the fuzzy pledges he made, there was one absolute: "We will never copy a Western political system," he vowed.