President Hu Jintao won a second five-year term as China’s Communist Party chief today, heading a new leadership line-up that features potential successors, yet could invite a divisive battle to succeed him.
Overall, Hu emerged politically stronger from eight days of top-level political meetings and months of bargaining in the lead-up. A party congress that wrapped up yesterday endorsed Hu’s signature policy programme to help the poor and saw the retirement of a key rival.
A Central Committee meeting today elevated a Hu protege, Li Keqiang, into the leadership.
“We are fully aware of our difficult tasks and great responsibilities,” Hu said as he introduced the new nine-man Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s most powerful body.
Yet the deals Hu struck became clearer with the inauguration of the new line-up of five holdovers from the last leadership and four newcomers. Key positions that oversee law enforcement and internal party investigations were given to associates of his rivals. Another younger politician and potential competitor to Li was also promoted.
Hu’s ability to manage this disparate coalition will determine how united the party is in dealing with tensions over a yawning gap between rich and poor at home and managing China’s rising clout abroad so as not to anger the US and other world powers.
If Hu is successful, he will be freer to boost spending on health, education and other services long-neglected in the headlong drive for economic growth. Otherwise, with his own retirement likely in five years, he could become a lame duck.
“Hu Jintao is a brilliant politician,” said Cheng Li, a watcher of elite Chinese politics at Washington’s Brookings Institution. But managing the new leadership “is a serious test”.
In the months ahead, a crucial sign will be the relationship between the leadership’s youngest members: Hu’s protege of 20 years since their days in the Communist Youth League, the 52-year-old Li, and 54-year-old Xi Jinping, Shanghai’s party secretary.
The son of a politically influential veteran revolutionary, Xi is less beholden to Hu and emerged in recent weeks as a compromise candidate for leaders who feared giving Hu too much sway.
In many respects, Xi and Li represent different camps, with Li identified with Hu’s supporters drawn partly from the youth league, and Xi with the traditional party elite and more prosperous coastal provinces.
Should the competition between Xi and Li get beyond Hu’s control, “he’ll be blamed,” said Li, the politics watcher.
Monday’s announcement of a new leadership line-up marks the end of months of often contentious in-house bargaining over high-level posts that saw Hu purge one Politburo member who had criticised Beijing’s policies.
Hu gained a significant edge yesterday with the retirement of Vice President Zeng Qinghong, a seasoned infighter, and two other members from the leadership.
Closing out a week-long congress, the more than 2,200 delegates – national and provincial political and military elite – also endorsed amending the party’s charter to include Hu’s pet policy programme, the “scientific outlook on development”.
The programme attempts to channel China’s boisterous growth to better benefit rural areas, low-wage workers and migrants left out of the economic boom of recent years.
The policy shift and rhetoric to help the disadvantaged have made Hu and his Premier Wen Jiabao popular with ordinary Chinese, a useful advantage in political wrangling. Wen, ranked No 3 in the party hierarchy, also stayed in the leadership for a second term, as did the legislature’s chairman and party’s No 2 Wu Bangguo.
Despite his departure, Zeng’s influence is certain to linger. A friend from their days in the oil ministry, public security minister Zhou Yongkang, was given a leadership post in charge of law enforcement. Another protege, He Guoqiang, who recently handled personnel issues was put in charge of the party’s internal anti-corruption Central Discipline Inspection Committee.
In another sign of Zeng’s lingering influence, an ally, Jia Qinglin, kept his leadership slot, despite being tainted by a smuggling and corruption scandal.