In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of humanity. Most China watchers will eventually learn that the meeting is taking place and scramble to figure out what is going on, but all the outside world will receive is a terse acknowledgment that it took place and a few gnomic sentences on its outcome. In the weeks that follow, learned scholars will plumb this statement for its deeper meaning, subjecting it to textual analysis and proposing a series of hypotheses that may never be proven.
The gathering will be the Chinese Communist Party’s annual plenum, a session of senior officials who meet every autumn to set the agenda for the coming year. This year, it will focus on economics, especially how to cool down China’s economy without crashing it. But hanging over the plenum will be the giant question of who will run the country into the coming decade. The key question will be if the man tapped to be China’s next leader, Xi Jinping, will get a seat on the Party’s Central Military Commission. Joining this body, which has responsibility for all of China’s armed forces, is one of a series of steps that is supposed to culminate in Xi replacing the current top leader, Hu Jintao, when his second five-year term as president ends in two years.
Some thought that Xi was to join the military commission last year, but he didn’t, and now observers are divided on what that meant—is Xi no longer rising in the Party hierarchy or was that snub unimportant?:And what if he doesn’t join the commission at this plenum—is his star falling further, or has the Party changed the rules of succession, with a seat on the commission not as important as had been assumed?
If all of this seems slightly Byzantine, it is. If it also seems incongruous and, well, rather Communist, for a modern, market-oriented country, that is also true. But if it leads you to conclude that this system is in the process of being swept into the dustbin of history, then you would be in good company but very possibly wrong. For much of its history, China’s Communist Party has been written off for dead after its spectacular failures: purges, extermination campaigns, massacres, and famines, to name a few. But each time it has bounced back, often after having changed course in spectacular fashion.
Today, the Party is arguably stronger than ever but few outsiders are aware of its enduring reach. For much of the 1990s and 2000s, the dominant emphasis in stories about China was how un-Communist it was becoming. Western media coverage shifted away from political reporting and toward emphasis on the country’s economic growth or stories …
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