Americans are heading to the polls today to choose their next president, but Chinese citizens will watch on the sidelines Thursday as China’s top lawmakers install a new generation of leaders at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.
Some Chinese believe this once-in-a-decade leadership transition can bring long-awaited policy revisions—including changes to China’s longstanding one-child policy—as a majority of the leadership is retiring and with the changing climate in the country.
Seven of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee—the secretive and powerful nucleus that controls the Chinese government—will retire because of term and age restrictions. In addition, roughly 70 percent of the members of the Central Military Commission and the executive committee of the State Council will be replaced.
Wang Jiayi, a university student from Beijing, said she expects the new leaders, including expected next leader Xi Jinping, to implement political, economic, and educational reforms over the course of the next decade, including increased transparency in government.
“It is an irreversible trend that the government become more transparent and open,” Wang said. “With the growing number of protests, repression has been proven useless. With the power of social media, repression can only trigger greater repercussions.”
The Communist Party’s smooth veneer has been showing cracks in the months leading up to the leadership changes with domestic scandals, regional tension, and government opacity filling the headlines. One candidate for leadership was connected to the murder of a British businessman, while Xi disappeared from public view for a few weeks, missing a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
And through the unrest, grassroots protests are beginning to prompt policy changes. Angry mobs in Hong Kong exerted enough pressure to effectively coerce Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to cancel the deadline for the implementation of pro-Communist curriculum. High-profile cases of forced abortions and sterilizations sparked an uproar on social media, leading some government think tanks and prominent scholars to suggest ending the policy.
In the greatest move to end the policy, a report leaked last week from the China Development Research Foundation, a group with close ties to the highest levels of the Communist Party, calling for a switch to a two-child policy by 2015. The complete report is expected to be released next week after the leadership transition.
Still, some Chinese have doubts that the new set of leaders will be more open-minded about issues like censorship and open discussion. “[Xi] is an aggressive politician, and he loves a fight,” said Hunter Liu, a Beijing graduate student studying in Los Angeles. “I don’t think he’ll give us greater freedom of speech. I think he will control it even more, taking us back to how it was in the 1970s.”
Many of the men and women who will be installed as China’s new leaders are “princelings,” the privileged sons and daughters of China’s political elite. Power stays within their families and they have much to lose by challenging the Communist system or principles.
Xi Jinping is a princeling, but is more familiar with the West than his predecessors: His daughter is an undergraduate student at Harvard University, and he has already toured the United States, stopping long enough to take in a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game and get a Lakers’ jersey signed by Kobe Bryant.
While this year’s Congress may awaken expectations for future changes, most Chinese realize that the changes won’t be immediate.
“People, especially foreigners, have been talking about Xi Jinping as a revolutionary princeling and expect him to carry out radical reforms, but I don’t think he will become China’s Gorbachev,” Wang said. “The reforms will take time.”