Leadership intrigue to dominate the nation’s Parliament
China’s Parliament opens its last annual session under the current leadership today, amid what analysts say may be a bitter power struggle to replace outgoing Communist Party rulers.
The National People’s Congress (NPC), which is made up of about 3,000 delegates, has limited power and the meeting in Beijing serves more as a grand rally exalting the ruling party than a forum for real parliamentary debate.
But it is a chance to see China’s most influential players gather together under one roof and analysts will be looking for clues about who may access the top echelons of power when a key leadership transition begins in autumn.
“There are some sharp elbows being thrown around and competition over positions is a lot rougher than we might have imagined,” said Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and five other leaders are due to relinquish their powerful positions in the Politburo Standing Committee this autumn at a congress that will also announce their replacements.
The committee is one-party China’s top decision-making body and its nine members wield huge power and influence that is felt beyond China’s borders – meaning this week’s goings-on will have an international audience.
Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li Keqiang are expected to be the only current members of the standing committee who will stay on – replacing Mr Hu and Mr Wen respectively – but it is unclear who will get the other seven posts.
The meeting brings together delegates from across the country – many of them in traditional dress representing their home regions – in a colourful display of national unity.
This year’s NPC is being held against a backdrop of growing resentment against Beijing’s rule in Tibetan-inhabited areas and in the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang, home to the mainly Muslim Uighurs.
Twenty people were killed last Tuesday when a group armed with knives attacked a market in Xinjiang, the latest outbreak of violence in the ethnically divided region.
Chinese politics is veiled in secrecy, but one dramatic event in February gave outsiders a rare glimpse into the brutal power struggle that may currently be at play.
Wang Lijun, a former police chief close to a high-profile contender to one of the standing committee positions, visited the US consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu in a rumoured attempt to defect.
Mr Wang, whose whereabouts are now unknown, was the right-hand man of Bo Xilai, the charismatic chief of Chongqing – a sprawling municipality not far from Chengdu – where Mr Wang was instrumental in a campaign to rid the city of graft.
The event is shrouded in mystery and it is unclear if Mr Wang was trying to compromise his former boss. But analysts say there are indications some may be trying to derail Mr Bo’s bid to step up to the elite.
“There were a number of Chinese academics who came out in the immediate wake of this incident declaring the end of Bo Xilai’s political career,” said Mr Chovanec.
“Given the caution usually exercised by Chinese academics... to come out and have them openly criticising and declaring the end of a major Chinese leader – they would not have done that unless they were given the go-ahead by somebody.”
Zhang Ming, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said he did not rate Mr Bo’s chances of accessing the standing committee after the incident.
“I think there is no doubt that he won’t make it,” he said.
Mr Zhang said Li Yuanchao, head of the party’s powerful Organisation Department, which appoints and controls personnel at every level of government and industry, may get one of the coveted positions.
Considered an open-minded official, he studied briefly at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and his tenure as party chief of the eastern province of Jiangsu was widely seen as a success.
Another contender may be Wang Yang, head of the southern province of Guangdong, China’s manufacturing hub.
“He is very close to Hu Jintao,” said Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based scholar on China, adding Mr Wang was considered quite progressive. “Apart from Wen Jiabao, who is famous for continuing to put emphasis on political reform, Wang Yang is the Politburo member who has talked the most about political reform.”
Analysts point to an incident in December in Wukan, a village in Guangdong, that saw protesting residents win rare concessions from the government after they faced off with authorities for over a week in a row over land and graft.
“That’s a new way of doing things. Wukan is considered to be a progressive model for tackling mass unrest,” said Lam.
Aside from potential clues about the leadership transition, analysts say the parliamentary session is unlikely to rock the boat.
“Social housing, social security, pensions... reduction in inequalities and managing social conflicts are likely to be the issues most often raised,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, politics professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.