The Chinese flag is lowered in Tiananmen Square on the eve of the Communist… (Alexander F. Yuan, Associated…)
BEIJING — On the heels of the U.S. election, the Chinese Communist Party began its own leadership transition Thursday with promises to double income over the next decade, stamp out corruption and allow more democracy — at least within the ranks of the party that has ruled unchallenged since 1949.
In one of his last major speeches before leaving office, President Hu Jintao said that economic growth would trump other concerns.
"We must adhere to the strategic thinking that only economic development counts," said Hu, speaking in the imposing Great Hall of the People on Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Hu vowed that the party would put a priority on the yawning income gap between rich and poor, and urban and rural, while pushing for increased consumer spending — a key demand of the United States and other trade partners who believe China is too dependent on exports.
As a target, Hu said, China's gross domestic product by 2020 should be double the 2010 level of $5.9 trillion, which would mean a growth rate of a little over 7% a year.
The 90-minute speech, an hour shorter than at the last party congress in 2007, was short on specifics and long on the Communist Party's pet stock phrases. Hu repeated "socialism with Chinese characteristics," "scientific development" and "building a moderately prosperous society" dozens of times.
But Hu also offered a nod to criticism that China's breakneck development had come at the expense of people's well-being — a popular theme lately in the state media. Hu promised that the party would improve medical care, care for the elderly, education and low-income housing and would protect the environment.
"There is still much room for improvement. For instance, unbalanced, uncoordinated development remains a problem. The development gap between urban areas and [rural] regions remains large, so are income disparities," Hu acknowledged.
Without naming names, he alluded to the corruption investigations of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai and former Railways Minister Liu Zhijun, and he vowed to "improve the culture of clean government in a more scientific way."
The 69-year-old Hu, who looked weary although his hair was freshly dyed jet black, is leaving office after two five-year terms. In a result that is preordained, he will be replaced as secretary-general of the Communist Party during the weeklong congress by Vice President Xi Jinping, who also will take over the presidency in March. Premier Wen Jiabao is to be replaced by Li Keqiang.
The atmospherics are a throwback to Soviet-style Communist Party congresses of last century, with deep red carpets and crystal chandeliers. The members of the ruling Standing Committee of the Politburo sat in the front row in matching charcoal gray suits, most of them with red ties. Most of the 2,268 delegates were similarly attired, except for a sprinkling of women, those in military uniform and a few minorities in colorful ethnic hats.
As it was with Soviet congresses for Kremlinologists, the opening of the congress was a rich opportunity for China scholars to see who was up and who was down. The 86-year-old former leader Jiang Zemin (who was incorrectly rumored to have died last year) with reddish hair and oversize eyeglasses was seated next to Hu and given extensive face time on Chinese state television, while Wen was barely shown.
Although Hu mentioned "intra-party democracy" several times in his speech, there was little indication that the selection of the next leadership would be any more open than in the past. The delegates were selected in party meetings across China to represent 82 million Communist Party members. During the congress, they will vote to select roughly 200 members of the Central Committee. In 2007, there were 8% more candidates than seats, a fact that the party uses to claim there is an actual election.
A Politburo of about 24 members and a Politburo Standing Committee, currently nine members but expected to go down to seven, also will be chosen, by procedures that remain largely opaque.
This is the first time that a party congress, held every five years, has directly coincided with the U.S. presidential election, offering the world an unprecedented opportunity to contrast the political systems of the two global powers.
For its part, the Chinese government seemed a little embarrassed by the conspicuous display of democracy taking place across the Pacific, the ecstatic revelers on the streets of Chicago, the free-flowing beer and balloons.
"China will not copy the Western system in political reform," Hu said in Thursday's speech.
An editorial in the Global Times, a newspaper linked to the Communist Party, railed against American politics. "The electoral system encourages populism. Parties and politicians are slowly turned into its captives," it said.
Nevertheless, many Chinese lamented the lack of democratic reform in China.
"So when will we, in our great motherland, be able to elect our own leaders?" complained one microblogger on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like service.
On Wednesday, there were almost 25 million comments about the American elections on Sina Weibo. The party congress had little commentary — in part because the very term "18th congress" has been banned by censors.
Nervous about public dissent during the congress, Chinese authorities have blocked websites and banned foreign television broadcasts in public places. Balloons, remote-control toy airplanes and homing pigeons are also forbidden. Taxis have been instructed to remove window handles from the back seats to prevent passengers from throwing pamphlets out the window.
"Obama uses Twitter to show off his victory; I can't even log onto my email. Do we live on the same Earth?" complained another Chinese microblogger.
Times staff writers David Pierson and Julie Makinen in Beijing contributed to this report.