The Chinese Party Congress Wrap-Up: 3 Surprises

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Xi Jinping's affable, plainspoken demeanor is the big story of the power transition.

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A security guard watches new Communist Party General Secretay Xi Jinping speak on a screen. (Reuters)

The "Great Unveiling" of the new Chinese leadership took place as expected on November 15, and the post-mortem judgment was virtually unanimous that the final line-up reflected a "conservative" leadership stacked with more sexagenarians than what many had hoped. And as such, hopes of fundamental reforms have been dashed for now (see here, here, and here). Although the conservative vs. reformer framework always struck me as a false dichotomy, I will leave the elaboration of that subject for another time. Instead, I think the conclusion of the party congress contained three surprises, and left many questions, that are worth pondering.

Surprise 1: Jiang Zemin's return. Even though "retired" President Jiang was reportedly terminally ill several years ago, he re-inserted himself vigorously into the personnel decisions at the 11th hour. The spritely 86-year-old hardly appeared like someone who had been on his death bed, charging around the Chinese capital with a mission. Indeed, at least three of the seven members on the 18th Politburo Standing Committee turned out to be Jiang's proteges, while outgoing President Hu Jintao was only able to get one true protege, Li Keqiang, into the ruling body.

I assume now that the transition is complete, Jiang will again fade into the shadows, having accomplished what was likely his political swan song. Jiang's high-profile outing, and his ostensible success in reprising his role as a powerful patron of top personnel, seem to reinforce the prevailing view that Hu has been a weak leader. Or at the very least, he wasn't as capable politically to maneuver around the institutional interests or Jiang's continued hold on aspects of political power to achieve his objectives. Some have even interpreted Hu's reign as merely riding the wave of policy dividends and economic inertia that Deng Xiaoping and then Jiang Zemin had already unleashed.

Surprise 2: The "Hu legacy." Speculation was rife that Hu would maintain his grip on the Chinese military just as Jiang did after he formally stepped down. Yet Hu ceded the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) to new President Xi Jinping immediately, a move that took many by surprise.

One explanation for Hu simultaneously relinquishing his posts at the party and the military is that he had already stuffed the CMC with enough allies that he felt less compelled to stay. Yet this would contradict the "Hu is weak" argument if he had enough clout to influence PLA personnel decisions. Might Hu's unexpected action be a subtle revenge move against Jiang? That is, Hu's clean break can be viewed as an attempt to institutionalize the transition process, in direct contrast to Jiang's arbitrary interpretation of procedural norms and conventions by willfully extending his longevity in the seat of power and repeated interventions in personnel. In fact, as John Garnaut reports in the Sydney Morning Herald:

The security officials wanted to know about the origins of Ji [Pomin]'s animosity towards Jiang and Ji did not let them down. In Ji's view, Jiang had made China virtually ungovernable by refusing to cede full authority to his successor, Hu Jintao, in 2002.

He told me -- perhaps with some bravado -- he spent three hours lecturing his captors on how Jiang had derailed China's efforts to institutionalise its leadership successions and had paralysed China's political process, while they dutifully took notes.

Even Xi weighed in to commend Hu for his action, portraying the outgoing chairman's decision as putting the country's interets first. Hu may have been a weak politician, but he may have made a strong political statement against his predecessor and salvaged some of his legacy.

Surprise 3: Xi's likeability. Xi's first outing as the new face of China was widely applauded as positive. Perhaps it was the baritone voice or the body language suggesting a man more comfortable in his own skin, I was struck by the positive reception to Xi both within China and among foreign observers who watched. To be fair, it didn't take much for Xi to exceed what were already abysmal expectations from a public accustomed to Hu's colorlessness for a decade. Xi didn't need soaring rhetoric to impress -- moving from a robot to a human was sufficiently distinctive. What's more, Xi's capable command of proper Mandarin, unlike Hu's Anhui-dialect laced Mandarin, did not escape notice among Chinese netizens -- many of whom are of the generation in which standard Mandarin became the social norm. Without even trying, Xi projected an image, by virtue of his Mandarin skills, of a politician who is cross-generational.

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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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