BEIJING—Chinese politicians are jockeying for position ahead of an expected shift in power two years from now, some with Western-style publicity campaigns that suggest China’s leaders could bring with them a more populist style of governance.
The jockeying is being spurred by the meeting of the National People’s Congress. The legislative body is often seen as a rubber stamp for decisions made elsewhere, and this year’s agenda lacks significant new bills or personnel changes.
But the thousands of Chinese politicos are descending on Beijing in advance of a change in power in 2012, when the Communist Party’s once-in-five-years congress is held. While the top two jobs are considered spoken for, potential candidates are engaging in subtle and not-so-subtle campaigns for other plum positions.
They include Bo Xilai, Communist Party secretary of the big city of Chongqing, and rival Wang Yang, his predecessor in the job and now governor of southern Guangdong province.
Nicknamed the “two cannons,” both have tried to connect with people at the grass roots. Mr. Bo, for example, has launched a crackdown on organized crime that has turned him into a popular hero.
Both men also aspire to a seat in the country’s most powerful body, the Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo, China’s top policy body. “The change in leadership might feel remote, but Chinese politicians are already beginning to take action,” says Li Cheng, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank. “The main contenders for the top positions in 2012 are already engaged in Chinese-style political campaigns.”
For outsiders, the result is likely to be less a change in policy in China than a change in style. While many of China’s new leaders are likely to be as bland as their predecessors, some are making tentative stabs at public-relations campaigns. That could herald a new, more populist style of governance in contrast to the largely technocratic bent of China’s previous leaders.
“People try to demonstrate they have fresh ideas and warrant being elevated to the highest echelons of the system,” says Kenneth Lieberthal, author of several books on China’s leadership.
It’s difficult to know exactly what is happening behind the scenes in Beijing, and top Chinese politicians rarely speak with Western media. China watchers say current Communist Party leader and head of state Hu Jintao is due to be succeeded by senior Communist Party official Xi Jinping, while Premier Wen Jiabao is expected to be succeeded by his lieutenant, Vice Premier Li Keqiang.
The powerful Standing Committee is more uncertain. That group currently has nine members but seven are due to retire in 2012, with only Messrs. Xi and Li remaining. It could also be whittled down to seven members, leaving five open slots.
Over the past year, the 60-year-old Mr. Bo has conducted a campaign against organized crime that has resulted in the arrests of 3,348 people, according to the latest official figure.
In a departure from previous campaigns, those arrested include Communist Party officials who backed the alleged criminals, including members of Mr. Bo’s own administration and members of the police force.
These successes have made Mr. Bo widely popular in a country where corruption is seen as a serious problem.
Some observers note that the campaign is certain to give Mr. Bo ammunition against his predecessor in Chongqing, Mr. Wang. Many of those arrested were senior officials under Mr. Wang.
Mr. Wang, 54, has countered with public calls for “thought emancipation”—a hint that he would allow more ideological freedom if he had a say.
Earlier this year, Chinese media widely reprinted a long, hagiographic article about Mr. Wang that had originally appeared in a magazine run by the People’s Daily. The article claimed that Mr. Wang had been discovered by the father of China’s economic reforms, Deng Xiaoping.
Then there are more conventional leaders, such as Zhang Gaoli, the publicity-shy party secretary in the port city-state of Tianjin. Mr. Zhang is credited with helping to turn around the economic fortunes of Tianjin, which had been somewhat left behind in the recent boom.
The rise of the Internet in China, which makes controlling information more difficult and can more quickly mobilize public opinion, has put a greater premium on effectiveness.
“The succession process is not going to be played by the same old game of cutting people’s knees out from under them,” said Russell Moses, a Beijing-based political scientist. “It’s more [a question of] of what can you do out in the field.”