There was a time when outgoing Chinese leaders were strong enough to name their successors, and that put an end to any discussion. Mao Zedong named the man who took over after his death, and later, “Supreme leader” Deng Xiaoping had the authority to choose not only his own successor, but the man who succeeded that successor – the now-outgoing General Secretary Hu Jintao.
In today’s China, however, where the Standing Committee has come to rule mainly by consensus, no individual has such power.
“Deng was the last one with absolute legitimacy because of his role in the revolution,” says Michel Bonnin, a China expert at the French School for Advanced Social Science Studies. “Today, there is no one like him.”
But the party has not developed any other convincing manner of choosing leaders and endowing them with legitimacy. “There is no voting, and no rule-based way of measuring popular opinion in the party,” points out Zhang Jian, a politics professor at Peking University. “If you don’t have a strongman or democracy, you are in a mess. Anybody can compete.”
Xi Jinping, almost certain to take the top job from Mr. Hu at the end of the week-long congress, emerged from negotiations among rival factions five years ago, but has little personal authority yet. Only one other man is staying on the Standing Committee, Li Keqiang, expected to be named premier.
Battles for the remaining five – or seven – places are still said to be raging behind closed doors, complicated by the fallout from the unprecedented public challenge to the party leadership that Bo Xilai mounted before he was brought down and expelled from the party. He is now awaiting trial, accused of corruption and involvement in a murder for which his wife is already serving a jail term.