The New York Times reports that, just days before the start of a major conclave, the senior leaders of China’s Communist Party are deadlocked on choosing the organization’s next set of bosses. At stake is the future of the world’s most populous—and potentially dangerous—state. The Times repeats rumors that General Secretary Hu Jintao, the country’s current supremo, is thinking of threatening war with Taiwan to help him obtain the support of the generals so that he can prevail in the increasingly unpredictable succession struggle. After years of relative political calm, the Party now appears headed for a period of heightened internal stress.
China watchers are fond of saying that Deng Xiaoping picked three of the four leaders of the People’s Republic. Deng picked himself and his two successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu. Hu now wants to choose his successor in Deng-like fashion. He is in favor of elevating Li Keqiang to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in today’s China. Many others, however, are trying to thwart Hu by promoting Xi Jinping. Li is a modestly talented cadre known to be totally loyal to Hu. Xi, on the other hand, is closer to Jiang and is thought to be more acceptable to other elements of the Party.
The lineup of the Standing Committee will be revealed when seven to nine men walk from behind a curtain onto the stage of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing at the 17th Party Congress, scheduled to begin on October 15. We are certain there will be great applause when they appear. What we don’t know is their identity or the order in which they come out, an indication of their rank. When the men emerge, we will learn who is the favorite to succeed Hu, scheduled to step down five years from now at the 18th Congress.
A half-decade ago most China watchers had said that the organization’s succession troubles were a thing of the past. Yet the transition from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao looked smooth only because it had been decided in 1992 by Deng. Now, Deng is gone and Party members are on their own. Whoever prevails later this month—Li, Xi, or some other official—will face years of infighting. The risk is that the struggle could spill out beyond China’s borders and end the long spell of peace in Asia.
Of course, if the Communists find it hard to pick their next chieftain, they could hold a free election. That would be better for everyone (except a handful of men who do not, frankly, deserve to lead a great people).