Leadership Transition Looms Over NPC

While policy announcements and new legislation will likely fill the news cycles during the sessions of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), which began Monday, The New York Times reports that the most important storyline will transpire behind closed doors:

A handful of provincial officials who will be roaming the Great Hall of the People are unannounced contenders for soon-to-be-vacant seats on the Politburo Standing Committee, the nine-member body that essentially runs the country. Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice Prime Minister Li Keqiang, the near-certain replacements for President Hu Jintao and Mr. Wen, are expected to keep their seats on the committee. But the other seven committee members are likely to retire, and top contenders who will be at the session include party chiefs from Guangdong Province, Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing and Inner Mongolia.

Neither they nor any delegate is likely to say anything publicly about jockeying over the transition.

“People are not allowed to speak,” Zheng Yongnian, an expert on Chinese politics who directs the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, said in an interview. Before the Communist Party congress this fall, where leadership changes are to be formally ratified, “stability must be the highest priority.”

“They want to guarantee the coming transition,” Mr. Zheng said. But behind the facade, he added, “you can feel a sense of nervousness over the changes at the top.”

Perhaps no candidate for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee has faced more public scrutiny of late than Bo Xilai, the “princeling” Communist Party chief of Chongqing, whose “Red Culture” drive and campaign against crime and corruption has had a polarizing effect on China’s political climate. Bo’s chances for promotion suffered a serious blow in February when the architect of his anti-mafia crackdown turned up at the U.S. Embassy in Chengdu amid an announcement that he had received “vacation-style treatment” and a break from his duties, setting off a flurry of speculation over possible defection, corruption and turmoil within Chongqing’s political hierarchy.

Rumors even surfaced on Chinese news and social media sites claiming that Bo had offered his resignation, but no official source confirmed this and his appearance at this week’s NPC would suggest otherwise. Still, the Wang Lijun incident shed light on the dark side of Bo’s “Chongqing Model” and threw his elevation to China’s highest governing body into question. A photo from the NPC emerged on Sina Weibo on Monday which summed up decades of political drama in its depiction of Deng Xiaoping’s son, Deng Pufang, being wheeled (he is a paraplegic) past a nervous-looking Bo. The photo elicited several thousand comments as netizens fix their sights on anything that may indicate Bo’s fate.

Also on Monday, The Financial Times published a lengthy account of Bo’s anti-crime crackdown given by a former billionaire property developer named Li Jun, who fled Chongqing and China after his arrest and torture as the target of a police investigation. The story, in which Li describes Bo’s “Chongqing Model” as “nothing but a red terror” and details his treatment following his December 2009 arrest, paints a picture of extortion, brutality and corruption within Bo’s regime:

Over the next three months, Mr Li says he was subjected to long periods of physical and mental torture as his captors tried to extract confessions that he was a mafia boss engaged in bribery, gun-running, pimping, usury and supporting illegal religious organisations. The interrogations were mostly conducted while he was chained hand and foot to a “tiger bench”, a straight-backed steel chair with ridged steel bars instead of a seat, and he was often beaten, kicked and hit with electric batons.

For the first month he was kept in the Chongqing municipal number one detention centre with dozens of other businessmen accused of running criminal gangs, all of whom he says were tortured to extract confessions.

His extremely detailed account, including names, dates, locations and cell numbers, is corroborated by lawyers who defended some of the accused businessmen and say that torture was widely used in the campaign.

“Some of the methods employed in Chongqing were even rare in feudal society,” writes Prof Tong Zhiwei of East China University of Politics and Law, who recently submitted a detailed report to the central government on Chongqing’s crime-fighting campaign. “One method was to secretly detain anyone who might testify on behalf of the accused and another was to detain any family members who spoke out.”

As the FT piece notes, many insiders and analysts view the upcoming leadership transition as a referendum on the competing ideologies of Bo Xilai and Guangdong party chief Wang Yang, whose “Guangdong Model” of reform stands in stark contrast to Bo’s desire to turn back the revolutionary clock. The two have engaged in public brinksmanship over the past year as they maneuver for a seat on the Standing Committee. But while Bo has come under fire in the wake of the Wang Lijun scandal, political analysts and state media applauded Wang’s handling of the late 2011 land grab protests in Wukan.

See also a BBC News interactive feature which profiles the key “faces to watch” as the next generation of Chinese leaders prepares to take over the reigns of party and government.