Hu Jintao

Congress key to Hu tightening grip

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 October, 2007, 12:00am


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President needs to stack the Standing Committee with as many loyalists as possible

The site of the first congress of the Communist Party in 1921 is a humble room down a Shanghai back alley, now overshadowed by a slick museum and surrounded by the trendy Xintiandi entertainment district.

The delegates, Mao Zedong among them, fled after police started searching the French concession for the illegal gathering. They concluded the meeting drifting on a boat on a nearby lake.

The meeting formally created the Communist Party of China and adopted a programme that vowed to end capitalist ownership. 'With the conclusion of the congress, the Chinese revolution began to take on an entirely new look,' reads a museum sign next to a tableau of delegates.

When the party holds its 17th national congress next week, the meeting will mix the old with the new. The party retains the control it has maintained since coming to power in 1949. The sloganeering will be an archaic-sounding throwback to an earlier time. The gathering will be held in Beijing, not Shanghai. Instead of 13 delegates around a wooden table, more than 2,000 will fill the Great Hall of the People. Mao is 30 years gone, lying in a mausoleum a few hundred metres from the hall.

Hu Jintao , party general secretary and president, will seek to assert his power at a time when the country is experiencing phenomenal economic growth and growing power on the world stage, coupled with deepening divisions between rich and poor and the threat of environmental catastrophe.

To accomplish his goal, he needs to stack the Standing Committee of the party's Politburo - the real source of power - with as many of his loyalists as possible at the expense of former president and party chief Jiang Zemin and his 'Shanghai Gang'. It shares power with Mr Hu's administration, competing on some issues and co-operating on others. Mr Hu would prefer to have his people hold a majority, and there are rumours the Standing Committee might be reduced to seven seats from nine. The president might even try to anoint a possible successor or successors, who would then battle for the top spot.

But succession has proved tricky on the mainland before, given the nature of the political system. One of Mao's successors, Lin Biao , died in a plane crash fleeing the country after allegedly plotting a coup, while Hua Guofeng , was ousted by Deng Xiaoping . Deng's attempts to designate possible successors also ran into trouble: hardliners forced his protege Hu Yaobang to step down. Zhao Ziyang was purged for sympathising with students in 1989 and died under house arrest.

There are various lists now circulating for the composition of the Standing Committee. The final lineup will not be known until the new members walk in front of the television cameras at the close of the meeting. Like the last two congresses, the 17th national congress is expected to end on October 21.

The sacking of one member of the Shanghai faction - the former party secretary for the city Chen Liangyu , for corruption last year - allowed Mr Hu to remove a political opponent. At the congress, he is expected to reinforce his call for fighting graft and Chen might be tried soon.

But Mr Hu will not seek to rid the top level of government of everyone with links to the Shanghai faction since his group - which includes officials from inland provinces and the Communist Youth League - lacks experience in some key portfolios.

A foreign diplomat said: 'One of his key objectives is to get as many of the people he regards as his loyalists and people from the same background into positions of authority, including a majority of the positions on the Standing Committee.' But he added: 'The Shanghai faction has strengths in subjects like economics and finance that not many of the Youth League faction do.'

In the run-up to the congress, there are signs Mr Hu is already getting his way. Some government appointments have been announced, including five new ministers. One of Mr Hu's closest aides, Ling Jihua , was appointed head of the general office of the party's Central Committee, which is ranked below the Politburo. Military promotions, including a new army chief of staff and a new air force commander, have been unveiled.

In a victory for Mr Hu, it appears almost certain that his concepts of 'scientific development' and 'harmonious society' will be included in the party's body of political theory. The ideas are meant to stress sustainable growth and social harmony, in deliberate contrast to the high-speed growth and favouritism towards coastal provinces under his predecessor, Mr Jiang.

A Shanghai government official, echoing the party line, said: 'China is stepping onto a larger stage with new phenomena and problems, and the congress should be a good platform to discuss all kinds of topics. I believe the congress will certainly advance the process of building a harmonious society and reinforce the scientific concept of development.'

In addition, it is also expected that the congress will adopt statements on Taiwan emphasising the party's position - including the threat to use force - on reuniting with the island. Following the recent reshuffles of military leaders in various military regions, speculation is rife on whether the new Central Military Commission, to be formed at the end of the congress, will see new faces.

Attention has been focused on whether Mr Hu will address any sort of political reform at the congress. Observers expect any changes to be incremental and concentrated on 'intra-party democracy', meaning shared decision-making but firmly within the bounds of the party.

There have been isolated calls to move further on political reform, which stalled after the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. Party elder Li Rui , former secretary to Mao, wrote a letter to Mr Hu calling for greater protection of citizens' constitutional rights such as freedom of expression and for lifting the shackles on the press.

The congresses typically broadcast broad political concepts, rather than specific policies, which later trickle out in the following months and around the annual session of the National People's Congress in March.