BEIJING: The heirs of Mao Zedong convene this week to anoint China’s next leaders, as the Communist Party maintains an iron grip on the economic powerhouse despite mounting calls for change in the Internet era.
Vice President Xi Jinping is set to take over a country that in just a few decades has gone from a famine-wracked basketcase to the world’s second-largest economy, and now has growing diplomatic heft and military reach as well.
Xi, 59, will succeed President Hu Jintao as the general-secretary of the 82-million-strong Communist Party at its 18th congress, which starts tomorrow in the Great Hall of the People on Beijing’s vast Tiananmen Square.
The heir apparent has been number two to Hu since 2008, and his appointment to head the all-powerful party will make his promotion to president of the world’s most populous nation, expected in March, a formality.
Xi, like many emerging leaders a “princeling” son of one of Mao’s lieutenants, inherits a cash-rich China newly willing to confront the United States over issues from Syria and Iran to North Korea.
With increasing maritime power, it asserts claims to seas and islands disputed by Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and others, and has a growing rivalry with the United States in the Pacific Ocean.
Experts do not expect any sudden policy change by the new leadership and anticipate China will stick to its priorities, including avoiding a worsening of the financial crisis in Europe, its biggest export market.
There are greater uncertainties on the domestic front, where Hu’s “golden decade” is ending with growth slowing to 7.5 percent, the lowest since the global financial crisis of 1998.
“Xi Jinping’s job is far more difficult than Hu’s job,” said Ben Simpfendorfer, managing director of Hong Kong consultancy Silk Road Associates. “It would have been much easier to introduce reforms over the last decade, not the next decade.”
Xi will be only the sixth leader since Chairman Mao founded the People’s Republic in 1949.
But ever since the “Great Helmsman” plunged China into chaos, the Communist Party has preferred rule by consensus and Xi will be only first among equals, balancing the priorities of different factions for the next decade.
In China’s one-party state, the five-yearly communist congress is far more important than the national parliament, which convenes once a year in March.