Portraits of late Chinese leaders Chou En-lai, from left, Mao Tse-tung… (Wang Zhao / AFP/Getty Images )
BEIJING — A popular joke making the rounds in Beijing touts the superiority of China's political system to that of the United States.
After all, while the race between President Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney went down to the wire, the Chinese have known for years the outcome of the 18th Communist Party congress that opens Thursday in Beijing.
Vice President Xi Jinping has been groomed since the last congress in 2007 to replace President Hu Jintao (first as secretary-general of the Communist Party), with Li Keqiang as Premier Wen Jiabao's successor.
If all goes according to protocol — and the Chinese government has put the country under virtual lockdown to ensure no deviation from the script — Hu will open the session at Tiananmen Square's Great Hall of the People with a sleep-inducing speech replete with communist jargon. The last time, he droned on for 2 1/2 hours.
Then, about a week later, Xi, Li and other members of the new senior leadership team — the Politburo Standing Committee — will march onstage, according to rank, in matching dark suits and nearly indistinguishable haircuts. They will applaud themselves for the successful conclusion of the event, but they are not expected to lay out a fresh agenda.
"It is all empty speech," said Li Datong, a former editor of the China Youth Daily, who recalls that some journalists have tried to wriggle out of covering the party congress. To the extent there is any suspense, it is whether the Standing Committee will remain at nine members or, as many analysts believe, be reduced to seven to streamline decision making.
Yet beneath the placid surface, political intrigue is roiling like at no other time in recent Chinese history. This year saw the downfall of Bo Xilai, a telegenic Maoist whose wife was recently convicted of fatally poisoning an English businessman; and the forced resignation of Hu's chief of staff, Ling Jihua, whose son was killed in a fiery Ferrari crash.
The cascading scandals have served to strengthen and weaken various contenders for the Politburo Standing Committee.
"There's no difference, in the gossip and the intensity of the U.S. and the Chinese transition: One is played out 24 hours on cable TV, the other is played out in breakfast, lunch, dinner, of anybody involved with the government," said Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an expert in Chinese politics who is in Beijing to offer commentary on state-run CCTV.
The party congress brings together 2,270 delegates from across China, from senior leaders such as Xi and Hu to a teacher from Tibet, an airport information-desk clerk, a 97-year-old former mayor of Beijing and a 22-year-old Olympic swimmer. Delegates represent different blocs within the party, such as provinces, the military and state-owned enterprises. All must be party members with "a firm political stand, virtue, fine working style and excellent achievements," as the official New China News Agency put it.
Though they will attend speeches and cast ballots, their role is that of window dressing, said Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney in Australia.
"These people are there as physical bodies, to hold a space, to show that a meeting has been held," he said. "There's no drama. But in this system, the less drama there is, the better."
Indeed, in recent decades, party congresses have had a Groundhog Day-like repetition. A Hong Kong newspaper on Monday compared the communique from the plenary session preceding the congress this year and the one from the 2007 and found the wording virtually verbatim. (For example: "The Political Bureau has comprehensively pushed forward the socialist economic, political, cultural, social and conservation culture construction and the great new party-building project, with various causes achieving remarkable results.")
The self-plagiarism is something of a point of pride for the Communist Party, which likes to congratulate itself on the decorum and stability of its system, especially next to the perceived messiness of Western democracies.
The primary tasks of the gathering are to make amendments to the party's constitution and elect about 200 members to the party's Central Committee. There are a few more candidates than there are positions, but hardly enough to add excitement. From the Central Committee members, people are chosen for two higher bodies, the Politburo (about 25 members) and the elite Politburo Standing Committee.
Although this structure makes the leadership transfer appear to be the result of a series of bottom-up decisions, Xi and the other incoming senior leaders have in fact been selected through secret negotiations among senior officials and party elders. Although elders have called in recent years for "intra-party democracy," the votes are conducted in closed sessions, the results a state secret.