China’s new leadership line-up a badly kept secret
By Benjamin Kang Lim
BEIJING: In another week, China will elect a new president and premier and so far, officially at least, there is no word on who the candidates are.
There is little doubt, however, in the minds of those attending the annual National People’s Congress, or parliament, as to who will replace Jiang Zemin as state president and Zhu Rongji as premier.
But the 2,984 delegates cannot talk about it publicly due to political sensitivities.
“We still don’t know who it’ll be. We haven’t seen the list yet,” Yun Dalai, a parliament delegate, said on Sunday when asked who the next president would be.
“It’s still a secret. The list of candidates may come down tomorrow,” said the 31-year-old electrical engineer from the northern region of Inner Mongolia.
But it has to be among the world’s worst kept secrets.
Communist Party chief and Vice President Hu Jintao, 60, is a virtual shoo-in to take over from Jiang as president after the parliament votes on March 15, Chinese and foreign sources and analysts say.
Party number three, Vice Premier Wen Jiabao, 60, is the lone candidate to replace Zhu, 74, in a poll for premier a day later.
Delegates not yet clear on the line-up might do well to scan the headlines and photographs in state newspapers.
Telling photos and front pages: The reports have already telegraphed who will take over as parliament chief, and as chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a toothless advisory panel to parliament.
Vice Premier Wu Bangguo, 61, made the front page for presiding over the parliament’s opening on Wednesday, and the official Xinhua news agency ran one photo of Wu’s warm handshake with retiring parliament chief Li Peng, 74.
Wu was tipped to take over as head of the legislature since he was named party number two at the Communist Party’s congress in November, when all the top government posts were decided.
Jia Qinglin, 63, ranked fourth in the party, will have his moment in the sun on Thursday when he is elected head of the CPPCC. He presided over that conference’s opening on Monday and his photo graced the tops of newspaper fronts the next day.
The leadership reshuffle is the culmination of a formal transition started last November when Jiang handed over the party leadership to Hu — the first orderly succession since the Communists took power in 1949.
The rubber-stamp parliament, which runs to March 18, will merely ratify the reshuffle.
The state media, and how it plays stories, has often been a source for China watchers to read the country’s political tea leaves, though the media attempts to whitewash signs of any power struggles.
When Jiang assumed the presidency in 1993, his predecessor, Yang Shangkun, hugged him warmly even though Jiang had elbowed Yang aside.
This time will be no different. Journalists and analysts will will be scrutinising Jiang’s every move when he passes the baton to Hu for signs of any reluctance to yield power.
Jiang is required by the constitution to resign as president after the maximum two five-year terms, but he will hang on to the powerful chairmanship of the state Central Military Commission, from which analysts say he will pull the strings from behind the scenes like his predecessor Deng Xiaoping did.
Some critics say Jiang likes the limelight — reciting poems, playing musical instruments, singing and dancing with his foreign guests — and vanity would make him lonely in retirement. .
The layout and placement of the pictures, particularly in the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, are key.
In 1993, its politically loaded front page carried two pictures: a portrait of Jiang, the new president, was in the ranking slot on the left; then parliament chief and rival Qiao Shi held the less important spot on the right.
All in the pictures: But analysts say it will be trickier this time because there will be one extra picture: the chairman of the state Central Military Commission, which Jiang is expected to retain.
“Whose photograph is on top or below, or whose is first will be an indication of whether Jiang has retreated from the front line to the second line,” said political analyst Wu Ke, who has been reading the People’s Daily religiously for decades.
Having only just begun to emerge from Jiang’s shadow, Hu has been careful not to tread on his predecessor’s toes, mindful that Jiang is still the power behind the throne.
But to have Jiang outrank him in the press, at least, would be highly unusual.
Wu said that under Communist Party regulations the Party commands the guns, not the other way around.—Reuters