Go time: Will China’s leadership shuffle be a game changer?

Delegates listen as Chinese President Hu Jintao (lower, unseen) delivers his address at the opening of the 18th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 8, 2012. (AFP Photo / Gon Chai Hin)
In a once-in-a-decade move, Chinese President Hu Jintao is preparing to hand over power during the Communist Party’s most notable gathering, complete with pageantry and behind-the-scenes political intrigue more complex than a game of go.

China’s political leadership painted Beijing red with Communist Party flags, banners and posters draped across the capital. Activists were chased away. Party members in their party best descended on Tiananmen Square. More than 2,000 hand-picked delegates filled the huge Great Hall of the People – and if images like these are anything to go by, the ruling party’s unity remains inviolate.

Delegates applaud as China′s President Hu Jintao bows after speech at the opening ceremony of 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, November 8, 2012. Reuters / Jason Lee)
Delegates applaud as China's President Hu Jintao bows after speech at the opening ceremony of 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, November 8, 2012. Reuters / Jason Lee)

Outgoing President Hu Jintao promised political reforms during his opening speech, saying the nation faced risks and opportunities in equal measure.

“At the present, as the global, national and Party conditions continue to undergo profound changes, we are faced with unprecedented opportunities for development – as well as risks and challenges unknown before,” Hu told the ruling elite.

But what exactly are those opportunities? What is China’s political strategy, and will it change as a new leader steps up to the plate? Or will Xi Jinping, the current VP and the man expected to become China's next leader, rigidly carry on Hu’s party line?

Chinese President Hu Jintao delivers his address at the opening of the 18th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on  November 8 2012. (AFP Photo / Gon Chai Hin)
Chinese President Hu Jintao delivers his address at the opening of the 18th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 8 2012. (AFP Photo / Gon Chai Hin)

In his address to the Congress, Hu said China “must continue to make both active and prudent efforts to carry out reforms of the political structure and make people's democracy more extensive, fuller in scope and sounder in practice."

Sounds promising – but what exactly is extensive democracy, from the Communist Party’s point of view?

According to economic researcher and author William Engdahl, it should focus on bridging the gap between the set-in-their-ways political elite and the Chinese youth, who yearn for more freedom.

“China is facing a challenging time. Chinese youth are very concerned. They consider themselves patriotic Chinese, but they want more freedom of expression. And the important thing for the Party leadership is to show the younger generation that freedom carries with it responsibility. And how that is going to work will be a crucial test of the very legitimacy of the party leadership over the next ten years.”

In his speech, Hu cited many of the challenges China faces — a huge gap between the rich and the poor, imbalanced development between wealthy cities and a struggling countryside. Yet he offered little to address them, and said restoring relatively high growth would be the best way to deal with public expectations.

Dedicating a part of his 90-minute speech to the problem of corruption, Hu claimed that “nobody is above the law.” However, statements like these are undermined by scandals that have fueled public cynicism and claims that Chinese leaders are more concerned with power and wealth than honest public service.

Disgraced politician Bo Xilai, Communist Party secretary of Chongqing (AFP Photo / Liu Jin)
Disgraced politician Bo Xilai, Communist Party secretary of Chongqing (AFP Photo / Liu Jin)

In recent months, one top leader, Bo Xilai, was purged after his wife murdered a British businessman; a top aide to Hu was sidelined after his son crashed a Ferrari he shouldn't have been able to afford and foreign media reported that relatives of Xi and outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao had traded on their proximity to power to amass vast fortunes.

How willing the new generation of leaders is to undertake serious changes will depend on its makeup, which remains a mystery.

The only two people to whom the media have allocated speculative leadership spots are Xi Jingping, who is expected to take Hu’s place, and Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who is said to be in line for prime minister.

Li is known for both his humble origins and good track record in economics and administrative work. He was the party leader in Henan, in central China, and Liaoning province in the northeast. Both districts prospered under his leadership.

For weeks, speculative lists have circulated among party insiders of who may be named to the all-powerful Politburo standing committee. Most specialists believe the decision has been made in secret by retired party elders and current leaders. But others say that, given the fierce competition among party factions, the list may change up to the last minute.

And it’s not just the Chinese who are eagerly waiting to see the new Politburo. Beijing’s neighbors, allies and frienemies like the US want to see its next move on the geopolitical and economic game boards.

It’s almost Go time.