November 9, 2012 4:02 pm

Chinese delegates go through the motions

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Chen Ying is not sure how she became a delegate to the 18th national congress of the Communist Party of China but for her it is an honour to match the Olympic gold medal she won in pistol shooting at the Beijing Olympics.

Ms Chen was training for her silver-medal performance at the London Olympics this year when she learned she had been selected as one of 2,270 delegates to the week-long congress, which is held every five years and opened on Thursday.

“I am extremely confident that under the leadership of the Communist party our socialist nation will be more spectacular and glorious and the happiness of the Chinese people will far exceed that of the rest of the world,” Ms Chen told the FT as she described the pride she felt at her selection.

In theory, the delegates meeting in Beijing this week amid tight security are supposed to “hold high the brilliant banner of people’s democracy” and elect a new generation of leaders who will rule the world’s most populous nation for the next decade.

In reality, all important decisions have already been made and the week-long congress is more like a giant convention for the country’s elite to mingle and manoeuvre.

“There’s not a whole lot of democracy going on at any level,” says David Shambaugh, director of the China policy programme at George Washington University. “The party goes to great pains to portray the process as democratic but those efforts are mostly what they refer to as ‘external propaganda work’.”

He says the party’s obsession with presenting some semblance of a democratic process comes from its close study of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conclusion that the system there had atrophied from top to bottom.

As part of efforts to boost legitimacy among its own members, the party has introduced a system in which there are 115 candidates for every 100 available seats at this year’s party congress and party members can vote to eliminate the extra candidates.

But much of the nomination and vetting process remains incredibly opaque and involves party investigations into everything from how a candidate dresses to what they think of the party and how they get along with co-workers.

“I was really shocked to find I’d been chosen as a delegate,” Liu Wanyong, a prominent investigative journalist for state-controlled China Youth Daily, told the FT. “The party secretary of our newspaper came and told me one day there’d been a vote and I’d been elected but I have no idea how the vote was held.”

Next Wednesday or Thursday, the party will unveil a new 370-person Central Committee, from which an elite 25 or 26-member Politburo will be drawn and a seven or nine member Politburo Standing Committee will emerge.

Delegates to the congress, including Ms Chen and Mr Liu, will be given three coloured sheets of paper and permitted to cast their votes for the members of the Central Committee, whose names are written on red paper, for alternate members of the Central Committee written on brown paper, and for members of the party’s top anti-corruption body, who appear on a slip of pink paper.

Each list of candidates is prepared in advance by the party’s top leadership and includes only slightly more candidates than positions.

This system of “intra-party democracy” ensures the outcome is easily controlled by a handful of the party’s most senior serving and retired cadres who have been engaged in fierce infighting and horse-trading for months.

While the Central Committee is theoretically supposed to elect the Politburo and the Politburo should elect its standing committee, those choices have always been made well in advance by key power-brokers and most analysts predict the same this time.

“The congress is not supposed to decide anything; everything has been decided beforehand in much smaller meetings,” says Zhang Ming, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing. “The congress is purely ceremonial, with delegates going through the motions to make sure the ceremony is perfect and harmonious.”

For instance, Xi Jinping, the man who will take over as head of the party next Thursday and as president of China next March, and Li Keqiang, who will take over as China’s premier, were actually anointed at the 17th party congress five years ago.

To this day, nobody outside the very inner circle of the party leadership knows how or why they were selected for these jobs.

Next week when they emerge as the new leaders of China they will be flanked by five or seven fellow Politburo standing committee members whose final selection will also be a mystery, even to the assembled delegates who supposedly vote for them.

As she was still preparing for the congress, Ms Chen, the Olympic shooter, said she had no idea who would join Mr Xi and Mr Li in the top leadership next week:

“I don’t have any idea at all,” she said. “I just listen to the party’s commands.”

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