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Leadership intrigue set to dominate China Parliament

  Analysts say there may be bitter power struggle to replace Communist Party rulers

AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE

BEIJING; China’s Parliament will open its last annual session under the current leadership on Monday, amid what analysts say may be a bitter power struggle to replace outgoing Communist Party rulers.

The National People’s Congress, which is made up of about 3,000 delegates, has limited power and the meeting in Beijing serves more as a grand rally exalting the ruling party than a forum for real parliamentary debate.

But it is a chance to see China’s most influential players gather together under one roof, and analysts will be looking for clues about who may access the top echelons of power when a key leadership transition begins in the autumn. “There are some sharp elbows being thrown around and competition over positions is a lot rougher than we might have imagined,” said Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and five other leaders are due to relinquish their powerful positions in the Politburo Standing Committee this autumn at a congress that will also announce their replacements.

The committee is one-party China’s top decision-making body and its nine members wield huge power and influence that is felt beyond China’s borders — meaning next week’s goings-on will have an international audience.

Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li Keqiang are expected to be the only current members of the standing committee who will stay on — replacing Hu and Wen respectively — but it is unclear who will get the other seven posts. The meeting brings together delegates from across the country — many of them in traditional dress representing their home regions — in a colourful display of national unity.

This year’s NPC is being held against a backdrop of growing resentment against Beijing’s rule in Tibetan-inhabited areas and in the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang, home to the mainly Muslim Uighurs.

Chinese politics is veiled in secrecy, but one dramatic event in February gave outsiders a rare glimpse into the brutal power struggle that may currently be at play. Wang Lijun, a former police chief close to a high-profile contender to one of the standing committee positions, visited the US consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu in a rumoured attempt to defect. Wang, whose whereabouts are now unknown, was the right-hand man of Bo Xilai, the charismatic chief of Chongqing — a sprawling municipality not far from Chengdu — where Wang was instrumental in a campaign to rid the city of graft.

The event is shrouded in mystery and it is unclear if Wang was trying to compromise his former boss. But analysts say there are indications some may be trying to derail Bo’s bid to step up to the elite.

“There were a number of Chinese academics who came out in the immediate wake of this incident declaring the end of Bo Xilai’s political career,” said Chovanec. “Given the caution usually exercised by Chinese academics... to come out and have them openly criticising and declaring the end of a major Chinese leader — they would not have done that unless they were given the go-ahead by somebody.” In an interview with AFP, Zhang Ming, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said he did not rate Bo’s chances of accessing the standing committee after the incident.

“I think there is no doubt that he won’t make it,” he said. Zhang said Li Yuanchao, head of the party’s powerful Organisation Department, which appoints and controls personnel at every level of government and industry, may get one of the coveted positions.

Considered an open-minded official, he studied briefly at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and his tenure as party chief of the eastern province of Jiangsu was widely seen as a success. Another contender may be Wang Yang, head of the southern province of Guangdong.

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