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The Chinese flag. (DAVID GRAY/REUTERS)
The Chinese flag. (DAVID GRAY/REUTERS)

Handicapping the leadership race in China Add to ...

It has been hailed by China’s state media as “the most important meeting in the world in terms of its impact on the future,” and not without reason. Yet the rest of us will find out what happens at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China only when it’s over.

On Thursday, about 2,270 delegates from across China will enter the colonnaded Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square. After a secretive week (or more) of deliberation, a group of men in dark suits (although there could be one woman) will emerge and walk in a phalanx down a red carpet. Only then – by analyzing who stands where in the official photograph of the occasion – will the world find out who is to run this emerging superpower for the coming decade.

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Not all the winners will come as a surprise: The man in the middle of the photo will be Xi Jinping, the current Vice-President, who has been chosen to succeed Hu Jintao as China’s paramount leader. Unless there’s a catastrophe, Mr. Xi will be made secretary-general of the Communist Party. He is then expected to become president next spring, and head of the Central Military Commission some time after that.

To his right will almost certainly be Li Keqiang. Tapped to succeed Premier Wen Jiabao as head of the country’s government, he is the only other member of the nine-man Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s supreme decision-making body, not scheduled to retire this year.

But who else will be there? At least nine others are clearly in the running. However, with the congress just days away, even senior government officials profess not to know whether the Standing Committee will stay the same size – it may shrink to seven members – let alone who will get the nod.

As for what the candidates would do if chosen, more is known about their allegiances than the policies they advocate. Chief among the various factions are the “princelings” (sons and daughters of Communist heroes who feel entitled to rule), political reformers (many of whom came up through the Communist Youth League under Mr. Hu), and those loyal to previous paramount leader Jiang Zemin.

Which faction, and which ideas, gain the upper hand may have a remarkable impact on the affairs of the nation and, given China’s growing clout, the rest of the world.

THE INCUMBENTS

XI JINPING, 59

Background: Considered a princeling as the son of revered revolutionary Xi Zhongxun, joined the CYL at 18 and studied chemical engineering at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University. Served as governor of coastal Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, and briefly as Communist Party chief in Shanghai before being promoted to the Standing Committee in 2007.

Current posts: First secretary of the Communist Party, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, vice-president of the People’s Republic of China

Politics: Considered close to both Mr. Hu and Mr. Jiang, he appears to have risen by being a bridge between the rival factions. But China-watchers wonder whether he also embraces the politics of his father, a reformer who played a leading role in China’s economic transformation in the early 1980s (and one of few senior leaders to condemn the use of force against pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989).

 

LI KEQIANG, 57

Background: Born in Anhui province, rose through the CYL, studied law at Beijing University and has been tabbed for a leading role since 1998 when, at 43, he landed the top job in Henan to become China’s youngest provincial governor. As well, he has served as Communist Party chief in northeastern Liaoning province.

Current post: First-vice premier

Politics: A protégé of Mr. Hu, he was his fellow Anhui native’s chosen successor until Mr. Hu reportedly was forced to compromise with Mr. Jiang’s conservatives and accept Mr. Xi. He has repeatedly called the current system “unbalanced” and spoken forcefully about the need for further economic reform.

THE SHOO-INS

WANG QISHAN, 63

Background: Best known as Beijing’s mayor, during the 2003 SARS crisis and then the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games.

Current posts: Vice-premier and representative to the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue

Politics: Seen as a princeling because his father-in-law, Yao Yilin, was vice-premier, he is considered a success as Beijing’s mayor because the Olympics were, but city residents have mixed feelings – Mr. Yao was in office during the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

 

LI YUANCHAO, 61

Background: Powerful figure within the Communist Party; has a PhD in economics from Beijing University; is a former party boss in his native Jiangsu province.

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