China mum on dates for leadership change meeting

Aug 14, 2012, 10:34 AM EDT
In this May 4, 2012 file photo, Chinese President Hu Jintao, right, Premier Wen Jiabao, left, and Vice President Xi Jinping, center, clap as they arrive for a conference to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Youth League at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. China's ruling communists are sticking to their trademark secrecy by keeping mum on the dates of a crucial leadership conference due this fall.
(AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan, File)

BEIJING (AP) — China's ruling Communists are sticking to their trademark secrecy by keeping mum on the dates of a major party congress this fall that will promote new leaders.

Communist Party officials insisted at a news conference Tuesday that they were committed to increased transparency and said they were introducing greater democracy in selecting the 2,270 delegates to attend the 18th national party congress.

But when asked when the congress would start, the deputy head of the party's Organization Department, Wang Jingqing, repeated previous statements that it was planned for the second half of the year.

Wang also said he did not know whether the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee would remain at its current size of nine seats or shrink to seven, as some analysts have speculated.

"Not even I know," Wang said.

The ruling party's habitual secrecy is a product of its origins as a beleaguered guerrilla movement and more than 60 years of authoritarian rule with no opposition or free press. Little is known about the private lives of the leadership, and dates for major party events aren't announced until the last minute.

The congress will mark a once-in-a-decade leadership turnover, with seven of the Standing Committee members stepping down, including Hu Jintao, who is both president and party leader, and a new crop of technocrats being brought in to steer the world's second-largest economy.

Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to succeed Hu as party leader before assuming the presidency as well next spring. Xi will head a Standing Committee packed with proxies for Hu and other outgoing leaders, and it likely will be years before he can put his seal on the country's governance.

Delegates are carefully selected and vetted for political reliability and competence, although Wang said procedures for doing so had been streamlined and institutionalized to make them more efficient. They are 52 years old on average, almost 70 percent are drawn from among top party officials, with the rest coming from the industrial and business sectors, most representing large state-owned enterprises.

After being approved by the party, potential delegates are put before local party committees for election, with 15 percent more candidates than available places, something party officials have touted as a sign of growing intra-party democracy.

However, Wang declined to say how the roughly 200 members of the Central Committee would be selected or by what method they would then pick the 25-member Politburo and its apex Standing Committee.

Despite the lack of information, party officials continued to insist they weren't hiding anything.

"It's a very open, transparent electoral system, all out under the sunshine," Organization Department spokesman Deng Shengming told reporters.