China's Leadership Transition: What to Look For

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When the People's Republic begins its once-per-decade power handoff tomorrow, here's where to find clues as to the country's future.

RTR3A3F9-615.jpgCarlos Barria/Reuters

Now that the U.S. election is behind us, time to turn to the next most important political transition in years: the Chinese Communist Party's 18th Congress. Seventeen congresses have gone by and hardly anyone has paid much attention, including most Chinese themselves. This time is a little different.

Beyond the usual pageantry and effusive praise of the CCP record since the time of Chairman Mao, surrounding this congress is a great deal of intrigue. For starters, consider the characters in the drama, which has become ripe for the kind of meme-worthy moments that marked the American election. Will Premier Wen Jiabao unexpectedly stray from his script and make a spirited denial of his family wealth? (What is your effective tax rate, premier?) Will we play a drinking game for every time Hu Jintao says "scientific development" or "harmonious society" during his speech? Will Bo Xilai photo-bomb the entire show? Will there be a sartorial rogue that dares to stride onstage in a silver suit and yellow tie? (I hear Zhang Dejiang's got quite the wardrobe). 

Silliness aside, this question will be most important of all: what will be at stake for China's political and economic future? 

If we're looking for compelling answers, we likely won't find them in Chinese rhetoric. American politicians tell stories; Chinese politicians wade through turgid theoretical treatises. The stilted and robotic nature of Chinese political discourse stands in stark contrast to President Obama's soaring speeches. But for the CCP and Chinese in general, politics and language are so deeply linked that understanding political rhetoric is crucial. 

Take this excerpt of a speech I translated that was given by the outgoing president, Hu Jintao, in July this year. Dubbed the "7.23" speech for the day it aired, it is now getting prime real estate on the official 18th party congress coverage sites, implying its significance in shaping the backbone of Hu's legacy. In it, the terms "unwaveringly" appears three times and has since been turned into a political neologism along the lines of "three unwavers". For students of Chinese modern history, this follows in the footsteps of the "two whatevers" of Hua Guofeng, the once-designated successor to Mao Zedong. It was a formulation meant to defend the path Mao laid out for China, even after his death. As history would have it, Mao lost and Deng Xiaoping won. Hu said:

Socialism with Chinese characteristics is the banner of contemporary China's progress, and is also the banner under which a united Communist Party and nation strive for. We must unwaveringly maintain socialism with Chinese characteristics, based on the important thought guidance of Deng Xiaoping theory and Three Represents and the thorough implementation of the Scientific Development Concept. We must firmly grasp our work and the urgency of execution, so that over the next five years, we can decisively plant the foundations for realizing our objective of comprehensively building a moderately well-off society by 2020; and that by mid-century, we will have fully achieved socialist modernization. 

We must unwaveringly walk the correct path that has long been paved by the Communist Party and Chinese people through practical experience, no matter the fear of risks and no matter the temptation to stray. Thought liberalization remains the ultimate powerful intellectual weapon that promotes the party's and the people's unfinished enterprise. Reform and opening up has always been, and continues to be, the powerful driving force for the development of the party and Chinese people. We must unwaveringly push forward reform and opening up, never becoming rigid, never stagnant. Unite all strength that can be united, muster all positive factors that can be mustered, and brim with confidence to overcome all challenges and risks in the road ahead. 

May Confucius bless you, and bless the People's Republic of China. 

Okay, so I made up the closing sentence, but the rest is authentic Chinese-politics speak. There will be seven more days of this, and I am ready. You should be too. 

The political event formally begins on November 8 and is expected to last about a week, at which time the main event will take place: the official unveiling of China's new leaders. Over the course of the week, I will be providing regular updates on the congress, so keep an eye on this space.
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Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

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