Forget the expensive campaign, the fighting caucus, the TV spots. The race to the White House is a kind of déjà vu. If you want to see an interesting political campaign, go east, to China. The beach resort of Bei Daihe is still the preferred site for informal meetings. In those idyllic and secluded resorts, the leading nomenclature fights battles and makes decisions. The reason is appropriate, given that the 18th Congress of the CPC will take place this fall. There are few, virtually non-existent, doubts about the choice: Xi Jin Ping will be Secretary General (and then President of the Republic) and Li Keqiang will be the new Prime Minister. Still, the public opinion is watching an unprecedented campaign. The 7 remaining seats of the 9-man-politburo of the Central Committee are at stake. The liturgy and the wording did not change from the Maoist times: the political milieu will determine the winners and the losers. In the past, the charismatic leaders choose their successors: Mao picked Hua Kuo Feng; then Deng Xiao Ping designated even two leaders in a row, Jang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Since the Tian An men’s incidents, the Secretary General is unanimously nominated, without a ferocious fight. His election is a result of mediation, where all the CPC’s components have a say. But he will not be a lifetime protagonist. After 2 terms he will retire, eventually becoming a non-persona. In his 10-year tenure the Politburo will be his counterbalance. He will be the most powerful man in China, but still a primus inter pares, forced to negotiate the country’s agenda. The “stakeholders” of the party will benevolently check his actions. The reason is clear: every man in the Politburo represents a social constituency. He will bring specific interests, sometimes conflicting among each other. The new Secretary will have to conciliate them.
Some decades ago, the political arena was easier to ascertain: a constant struggle between “two lines”, the revolutionary and the revisionist ones. Now the interests are more prosaic but more understandable: the role of the SOEs, the real estate bubble, the Renminbi rate of exchange, the power of the local governments, the income inequality, the geographical divide. Every member represents some of these interests. In this complexity, two groups are emerging: the Elitists and the Populists (the term is different from the European meaning). The former want to keep the supremacy of the party and believe times are not mature for political opening to new subjects. For them, ruling a country is a duty, not a privilege. They see the economic and financial modernization as tools to improve China’s weight. Nationalistic in foreign policy, domestically they want to maintain the SOEs’ role. Within this group the so-called “princelings” (sons and nephews of formerly important leaders) are the most vociferous.
The Populists usually come from backward areas of China and did not attend the most prestigious universities of the country. They care about the GDP, both in production as well as distribution terms. Their political cradle was the Communist Youth League, where Hu Jintao and Wen Jabao came from. They are ready to negotiate with the other countries, while domestically intend to push on local consumption. Finally, they are politically sensitive to social disparities.
These two groups are often linked between themselves, for personal convenience, tactical alliances and strategic ambitions. For example, the most known princeling – Bo Xilai – undertook a Maoist-style campaign in Chongqing which recalls the era of populist propaganda. On the contrary, the “Shanghai Gang” looks more prudent and discrete, because of the ailing health of its protector Jiang Zemin. At its conclusion, the next Congress will give birth to a new leadership, as a result of compromises, common retreats and inevitable defeats. A Hong-Kong style solution will emerge, at least in wording: One Party, Two Coalitions. The real challenge will be to prove that collegiality within the party is a sign of strength, not weakness.