Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


What matters at China´s party congress
Corriere della Sera - October 16th 2007

When the world’s biggest country, measured by population, which could within 20 years be the world’s biggest economy, holds a meeting of its ruling Communist Party that happens only once every five years, it sounds like it should be an important and even exciting event. But it is also held mostly in secret, and the conclusions from it are usually incomprehensible. There are really only three things that we are likely to be able to get an idea about.

            The simplest of the three issues is the succession to the party leadership. Hu Jintao, the current president, is due to serve until 2012. His successor should become a member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, the ultimate centre of power in China, at this 17th Congress of the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China. In the West, only the cognoscenti will ever have heard of the man who is anointed as the successor, so his name is unimportant.

The important question is whether there is one clear successor, or two men, who will compete for the post. As the Congress opened, the rumours were that there would be two—called, for the record, Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping, both provincial party chiefs. If the rumours turn out to be true, that will be significant because it will show that Hu Jintao has not gathered all power into his own hands and because it will promise a power struggle within the party during the next five years.

That weakness of President Hu will affect both of the other two issues which are of interest to westerners at this Congress. China’s fast-growing economy has also produced a huge trade and current-account surplus, of more than 10% of GDP, which is a larger proportion than Japan ever achieved during its heyday. This has happened because of cheap capital and a huge rise in investment. The consequence is western anger about trade but also, of more political importance in China, rising inflation. President Hu and his prime minister, Wen Jiabao, have been making speeches for more than two years saying the economy needs to be slowed down. They have failed. Too many people in the party, and especially in provincial governments, want fast growth to continue.

The longer they fail, the more the problem of inflation (now 6% a year) will grow, and the more anger will develop abroad about the trade surplus and about China’s undervalued currency. So President Hu and Premier Wen will try again at the Congress to gain agreement for measures to get the economy back under control. It will be hard to tell whether they have succeeded, but some clues may emerge.

The final issue may provide one of those clues. That issue is the environment: pollution in China is increasingly deadly, and is causing more and more public protests. The country’s laws against pollution are perfectly good. The problem is that they are not enforced, and the powers of the main environmental agencies are weak. The reason is, as before, that provincial governments favour growth as it makes them rich, and controlling pollution is likely to cause growth to slow.

Pollution, like inflation, is also a political threat to the survival in power of the Communist Party itself. It is therefore possible that even if President Hu fails to get his chosen successor and has to accept competition, he could forge a consensus to bring in new measures to control growth and enforce anti-pollution laws. If a lot of public comments are made by Congress delegates about the environment, it is likely to be an indication that he has succeeded.

Other issues will, of course, be discussed, both among the delegates and among the many pundits watching the Congress: Taiwan, Burma, the state of the debate about political reform inside China, the divide between the urban rich and the rural poor. But these are all highly sensitive politically, so the party leaders are unlikely to allow the secrets of their discussions to emerge. The succession, the economy and the environment: those are the issues to watch for, during the week that the Congress will last.


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