On a summer afternoon on June 25, 2007, about 400 Communist Party elites, including its Central Committee members and other leading officials, converged in Beijing for what was billed as an “important strategic decision” in the party’s history.
For the first time, they were invited to participate in a straw poll to recommend provisional candidates for the 25-member Politburo to be sworn in later that year, immediately following the 17th party congress.
Each participant was given an orange ticket which contained the names of nearly 200 ministerial ranking officials and generals deemed qualified for induction into the party’s inner-circle, decision-making body, Xinhua reported.
It described the poll as an important breakthrough in developing the party’s internal democracy, promoting institutionalisation and standardisation of the top leadership succession, even though it offered no details about how the straw poll went and who came up on top.
Five years later in May 2012, the elite officials met again to make recommendations on candidates not only for the 25-member Politburo but more importantly for the Politburo Standing Committee, the party and the country’s highest governing council. These were to shape a new leadership line-up at the 18th party congress to be held that year, from which Xi Jinping emerged as the party’s chief.
Fast forward to this year’s 19th congress, which ended little more than a week ago and from which Xi emerged an even stronger leader. Instead of continuing the straw poll, Xi dismissed it as a gimmick which could elect the wrong people. Instead, he chose face-to-face meetings to select the country’s new leaders.
According to Xinhua, before the new leadership line-up was decided, Xi consulted 57 current and retired party and government leaders, while other top leaders listened to an additional 258 ministerial ranking officials and generals for recommendations. In addition, top generals at the Central Military Commission spoke to 32 senior military officers about recommendations for the military representation on the Politburo.
The termination of the straw poll method of selection and the changes Xi introduced spoke not only to Xi’s power but also dashed hopes for more incremental experiments of the Chinese-style intraparty democracy initiated by Jiang Zemin and expanded by Hu Jintao, Xi’s two immediate predecessors.
But how the intraparty democracy has evolved – and its implications for China’s leadership succession – still reveals plenty about the party’s secretive politics.
The system for choosing China’s leaders had long been a closely guarded secret, completely shielded from the public until the 16th party congress in 2002, when Jiang stepped down as the party chief and gave way to Hu Jintao.
After the close of the party congress on November 14, 2002, Xinhua released a lengthy article shedding light for the first time on the party’s opaque process for picking Central Committee members.
Although the article was devoted mainly to fulsome praise for the party leadership, the timeline and basic process described still offered a useful glimpse into the thinking of the Chinese leadership.
That article, personally vetted by Hu and other Chinese leaders, was apparently well-received, prompting the leadership to make it customary after every five-yearly congress. Since the 17th congress in 2007, Xinhua has filed a separate report offering details about how the Politburo members were chosen, as mentioned at the start of this column.
Sifting through all those Xinhua reports from the 16th congress to the 19th congress has yielded some interesting insights into how the party leadership tried to expand the so-called intraparty democracy in the name of institutionalising leadership succession. The process is more inclusive than outsiders have long believed.
According to the Xinhua reports, the exercise to choose the Central Committee members usually kicks off in May or June one year before the party congress. Inspection teams are despatched to all party and central government ministries, key financial institutions, major state-owned enterprises and all provinces and municipalities.
At every ministerial ranking organisation, its party committee members are allowed to recommend and vote on an unspecified number of candidates.
The Xinhua reports suggested that since Hu came to power in 2002 at the 16th congress, he steadfastly promoted more participation in the selection of the Central Committee and Politburo members.
For the 16th congress, about 30,200 officials voted on the potential candidates, doubling the number from the 15th congress.
For the 17th congress, the leadership distributed 33,500 questionnaires to selected ordinary party members from all 31 provinces and municipalities to get their input on the potential Central Committee candidates – also a first in the party’s history.
Indeed, during Hu’s 10-year tenure from 2002-12, promoting the intraparty democracy became a top priority. The peaceful transfer of power from Jiang to Hu raised hopes that China’s perilous leadership succession could become more institutionalised and standardised via the introduction of more rules and norms.
In particular, following the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997, there were widely held hopes that the era of the strongman had ended.
The consensus was that development of intraparty democracy could serve as a check and balance to entrench party controls.
For outsiders, the progress on intraparty democracy may sound limited but by the standards of the party, every step forward, however small, was hard won by the party’s liberal wing.
A more important breakthrough came in September 2009 when the Central Committee held a plenary session to study how to strengthen the party’s legitimacy and declared that intraparty democracy was the “lifeblood of the party”. Meanwhile, many liberal thinkers close to the leadership began preaching that intraparty democracy was the best way forward for China’s political reform. The well-known article “Democracy is a Good Thing”, penned by Yu Keping, a party scholar, proved popular both with the elites and ordinary people.
But that optimism proved short-lived. Now with Xi’s decision to abandon the vote-based promotion system and effectively revert to the old method of picking new leaders, the much-hyped experiment with intraparty democracy appears to have run its course. ■