After months of mystery, China set to unveil new top leaders

7:54 AM, Nov 14, 2012   |    comments
Thousands of members of China's Communist Party are meeting in the immense Great Hall of the People in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
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Beijing (CNN) -- The small group of people who will set the agenda for China for the next decade is expected to be unveiled to the world on Thursday after months of secretive bargaining and abundant speculation.

A far cry from the relentless media campaigns and frequent public appearances of U.S. presidential candidates, the efforts to determine who ends up on the elite panel that sits atop the Chinese political system have taken place behind closed doors.

They are part of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition taking place in the Chinese Communist Party, which has ruled the world's most populous nation for the past six decades.

Despite the spectacular economic and social changes China has undergone in recent times, the party has maintained a tight grip on power and upheld its obscure methods for selecting its top leaders.

The consequences of the leadership handover under way at the moment are significant for the nation's 1.3 billion citizens, its neighbors in Asia and the United States, which is warily watching China's economic and military rise.

The initial phase of the process concluded Wednesday, when President Hu Jintao brought the Communist Party's 18th National Congress to a close amid heavy security in Beijing. Hu, 69, is widely expected to be replaced as party chief Thursday by Vice President Xi Jinping.

But what kind of changes Xi, 59, and those set to join him on the party's most powerful committee are likely to usher in over the coming years remains shrouded in mystery.

"Xi Jinping is in many ways an unknown commodity," said Mike Chinoy, a former CNN correspondent and now a senior fellow at the University of Southern California's U.S.-China Institute. "He's risen to the top of the Chinese system by being very careful not to disclose what he really thinks."

Some observers have expressed hope that the next decade could bring a degree of political reform as Chinese leaders seek to bolster their legitimacy, which has been eroded by widespread corruption and the dramatic scandal this year involving the former senior party official Bo Xilai.

But many analysts are skeptical about the willingness of leaders to adopt meaningful changes, noting the concentration of power and money at the top of the party.

"Reform has become nigh impossible because any change of the political or economic status quo will threaten the vested interests" of the influential clans in the party, Willy Lam, a history professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote in a opinion article this week.

The secrecy and exclusivity of the procedure by which China's top leaders are selected, involving maneuvering and deal-making among senior party figures, leaves many of the country's citizens feeling detached from the process.

"Many ordinary people don't feel so excited or joyful about what's happening," said Lijia Zhang, a Beijing-based author. "People say, 'Oh, it's the party's business, nothing to do with us -- and we do not have a say in selecting the leader or the policy.' "

The stringent security measures imposed on Beijing during the party congress have left no room for public expressions of dissent. But Tibetan people in western areas of the country have stepped up their protests over Chinese rule.

Free Tibet, a London-based Tibetan advocacy group, said Tuesday that eight people in Tibetan areas of China have set themselves on fire since last week, when the party congress got under way.

Tibetan unrest is not the only difficulty facing China's new leaders. The country is treading many fault lines, including a widening gap between rich and poor, rising unrest about issues like pollution and land seizures, and a slowing economy that some say is in need of serious reform.

The veil of secrecy around the party has been lifted, with reports of rifts and infighting. And the fall of Bo brought about China's biggest political scandal in decades.

Bo, once party chief of the massive metropolis of Chongqing, is now in disgrace awaiting trial. His wife, Gu Kailai, is in prison, convicted of murdering a British business associate.

Senior party leaders and their leaders have had to deal with unusual scrutiny of their affairs, with Western news organizations publishing investigations into the wealth accumulated by the families of Xi and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Chinese authorities responded to the reports by blocking the websites of the news organizations involved: Bloomberg News and The New York Times.

But China's army of censors is grappling with the rapid rise of social media platforms on which information moves and mutates at a dizzying pace.

On Thursday, the country's new top leaders are expected to use a more traditional approach to present themselves to the Chinese and international news media by appearing on stage at the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing.

Uncertainty remains over which select few senior officials will join Xi and Li Keqiang, who is expected to succeed Wen as premier, on the party's elite Politburo Standing Committee.

More than 200 officials were expected to be elected to the Central Committee. The state-run news agency Xinhua singled out "10 top leaders" who it said were elected to the party's Central Committee before the congress closed.

The 10 names listed by Xinhua are seen as the front runners for the Standing Committee.

But It is unclear precisely how many of them will be appointed to the committee. Some analysts have predicted that the Standing Committee could be reduced from its current size of nine members to a more streamlined seven.

A smaller committee could help bring about greater unity and efficiency at the top of the party, experts say.

Besides Xi and Li, the other "top leaders" named by Xinhua are Wang Qishan, Liu Yunshan, Liu Yandong, Li Yuanchao, Wang Yang, Zhang Gaoli, Zhang Dejiang and Yu Zhengsheng.

One name absent from the list but likely to have a strong influence on which of its members make the final cut is the former president Jiang Zemin.

"All indications are that several people who have close ties to Jiang Zemin will be promoted into the Politburo Standing Committee," said Christopher Johnson, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"It's (a) sign the system still has a lot of work to do in terms of its political maturation, that an 86-year old who effectively hasn't been in office for 10 years has that much power and influence over the new lineup."

Jaime A. FlorCruz and Jethro Mullen, CNN

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