China’s Political Transition Is Coming

22 July 2012

BEIJING (AP) - China's once-a-decade political transition coming this fall seems devoid of drama on the surface: It's clear who will take over, and the fight for other top spots is invisible to the public. But beneath the veneer of calm, the Communist Party is struggling to contain troubling events and mask divisions.

The world's second-largest economy is experiencing an unexpectedly sharp slowdown. Violent demonstrations percolate as people tire of corruption, land grabs and policies seen as unfair. Tensions simmer with neighboring countries and the US over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Then there's the unresolved scandal involving Bo Xilai, who was a well-connected contender for high office before he was ousted for still unexplained transgressions.

The communist grip on power isn't threatened and the lack of open elections means they require no voter approval. But the party risks eroded legitimacy and a reduced ability to impose its will, further alienating younger Chinese and encouraging critical opposition voices arguing for a democratic alternative.

As the party's unstated contract with the people exchanging one-party rule for economic growth frays, pressure for reform is likely to intensify.

``The economic downturn, human rights demands and political reform are major issues for the party,'' said Wu Si, editor-in-chief of the Beijing-based pro-reform journal Yanhuang Chunqiu. ``None of the leaders know what to do about it.''

Five years after he was picked as successor, Vice President Xi Jinping remains on track to take over from President Hu Jintao in the party's fall congress, where its leading members will install a new generation of leaders.

China is run by a collective leadership, and many of the other seats in the Politburo Standing Committee, decision-making's inner sanctum, are undecided, analysts and party insiders say.

Final decisions on the leadership lineup and key issues to be addressed at the congress should be hammered out in various sessions this summer, including informal meetings east of Beijing at the seaside Beidaihe resort.

None of the leading contenders; mostly proteges of Hu or other rival party elders, is trying to grab headlines.

Open politicking is strongly frowned upon, and while competition for posts and influence is intense, it takes place far from the public as the party seeks to display a united front, said Jiannan Zhu, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno.