China’s outgoing leader and his likely successor are pushing the ruling Communist Party to adopt a more democratic process this month for choosing a new leadership, sources said, in an attempt to boost its flagging legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
The extent of the reform would be unprecedented in communist China where elections for the highest tiers of the party, held every five years, have been mainly exercises in rubber-stamping candidates already agreed upon by party power-brokers.
The Communist Party, which has held unbroken power since 1949, is struggling to maintain its popular legitimacy in the face of rising inequality, corruption and environmental degradation, even as the economy continues to bound ahead.
President Hu Jintao and his heir, Xi Jinping, have proposed that the party’s 18th Congress, which opens on Thursday, should hold elections for the elite Politburo where for the first time there would be more candidates than available seats, said three sources with ties to the party leadership.
The Politburo, currently 24 members, is the second-highest level of power in China from which the highest decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, is chosen.
They are chosen by the roughly 200 full members of the Central Committee which is in turn chosen by the more than 2,000 delegates at this week’s Congress.
Under their proposal, there would be up to 20 percent more candidates than seats in the new Politburo in an election to be held next week, the sources said. It was unclear if competitive voting would also be extended to the Standing Committee.
“Hu wants expanding intra-party democracy to be one of his legacies,” one source said, requesting anonymity to avoid repercussions for discussing secretive elite politics.
“It would also be good for Xi’s image,” the source added.
Xi is considered certain to replace Hu as party chief at the congress, with Li Keqiang, currently a vice premier, tipped to become his deputy in the once-in-a-decade transition to a new administration. Xi would then take over as president, and Li as premier, at the annual full session of parliament in March.
China experts said a more competitive election for the Politburo would mark a historic reform that could lead to surprises in the formation of Xi’s administration, with wider implications for further political reform.
“This is a very, very important development,” said Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“It would provide a new source of legitimacy. It would not just be dark-box manipulation … The party’s legitimacy is so low that they must do something to uplift the public’s confidence.”
However, Li and other experts remained skeptical that the proposal would be adopted, given that it could still be vetoed by party elders or conservatives.
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