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China Prepares For New Leaders In Critical Transition


Just two days after our presidential election, China opens the most important event in a decade on its political calendar: a transition of power. This will all start with a party meeting next Thursday. But the security clampdown that precedes it is already underway. We're joined now by our two China correspondents. Frank Langfitt is in Shanghai; Louisa Lim in Beijing. Thank you both for being with us.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: It's a pleasure.


SIMON: Louisa, first. Could you tell us a bit more what's actually going to happen, and help us understand why it matters?

LIM: Yes. Well, this is a very big deal for China because it only happens once every 10 years, that there's a hand over of power like this. And it comes at a really critical time for China, at a time when the party is reeling from this massive scandal involving a former top politician, called Bo Xilai, who was once headed for the top leadership and now is awaiting trial. We don't know yet what the charges are but they're likely to involve abuse of power, corruption, even involvement in covering up a murder that his wife's been found guilty of. So, it's a very important time for the party. But also you have to remember that it's a very big change. Seventy percent of those in China's top political institutions will change. Also, 70 percent of those in charge of its military - and now China's the world's second-largest economy. You know, this is going to be very important for the rest of the world, too.

SIMON: Frank, help us understand the range of challenges that new leaders will face. I guess, beginning with some of the recently discouraging economic news.

LANGFITT: Yeah. They're facing a ton of challenges, and the first thing really is the economy. I think, the economy has kind of driven this country. It's the reason the party has been so successful. And growth has been slowing now for almost two years. And what they're really in search of is the new economic model. You know, this used to be a low-wage place. That's not true anymore. Labor costs have gone way up. Those export markets in Europe and the United States are very weak now, and there's been a lot of money poured into investment and real estate. And so what they need to do is kind of come up with a new model that relies a lot more on consumer spending. They're going to have to reform the state businesses that are awfully inefficient in many instances and going to climb the value change and build more innovation economy. That's going to be a lot harder to do because there are more vested interests that have really benefitted from the old system. So, the economics, I think, are crucial. The other thing that I think that maybe Louisa and I have found over the years is that there's also a sense that the ordinary people here kind of outgrowing the authoritarian system. People are more sophisticated, they have more access to information, have more sense of legal rights. And there seems to be this growing gap between ordinary folks and the people who rule them.

SIMON: Who are going to be China's new leaders, Louisa?

LIM: Well, that is the $64 million question. We know who the top two leaders are going to be. We know their next president is going to be a man named Xi Jinping, who's the son of a revolutionary hero. His premier will be a man called Li Keqiang. They're both party men. They've worked their way up. But what we don't know is who else will be ruling China with them. But as China actually rules by consensus, every day now analysts are coming out with different leaks, different name lists of people who are likely to be on it, and everybody is passing them, trying to work out if they're likely to be reformers or conservatives. But the real truth is at the moment nobody knows. It may not even have been decided at this stage. There's a lot of horse trading going on. There's a very delicate balance between factions. Some old leaders are coming out of the woodwork to have their say as well. We may not even know until the very last minute. This is kind of a moment of political theater, the day after the last day of the congress when the new leaders walk out onto a stage.

SIMON: Frank, you're in Shanghai, and, of course, every now and then we need to remind ourselves what an enormous society China is and how many differences there are within its borders. How is this leadership change being followed outside of Beijing?

LANGFITT: I think most people aren't following it frankly. I think most of the ordinary people in the street couldn't pick most of these candidates out of a police lineup. In politics here, they don't campaign for anything. They are public figures but they have very little contact with people. And so most people, if you talk to them today in Shanghai, they say, well, we don't really know their policies. We're not really a part of the process, so that many of them may not even be watching when this is announced because they don't see it as directly relevant to their lives.

SIMON: No such thing as the Jiangxi caucuses, I guess.


SIMON: Yeah. Louisa, help us understand what's going on with the security crackdown there ahead of the meeting.

LIM: Well, there's all kind of weird and wonderful security measures that are being enforced here in Beijing at the moment, including pet pigeons being banned from flying because they might be a security risk. Many big gatherings, some of which have been planned for a long time, are being canceled and postponed - even the Beijing Marathon. Taxis have all been changed so people can't wind down the windows. Taxi drivers have been told that if people were able to wind down the windows, maybe they would throw subversive literature, subversive leaflets or even subversive ping-pong balls out of the windows of the taxis. So, there's all kinds of these type of measures going on. And also there's a crackdown on dissidents, on activists. We're hearing from Amnesty International; 130 activists have been detained or had restrictions placed on them since September. So, it's a very sweeping crackdown at the moment.

SIMON: NPR's Louisa Lim in Beijing, and Frank Langfitt in Shanghai. Thank you both.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Scott.

LIM: Thank you.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.