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Top Chinese Communist Party officials are meeting to choose their next leadership

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Top officials with China's ruling Communist Party are meeting in Beijing this week to anoint their next leadership. China's current leader, Xi Jinping, is widely expected to remain in power for a third five-year term. But as NPR's Emily Feng reports, we know very little about how the party makes these big decisions.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

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EMILY FENG, BYLINE: This is what we get to see of the party congress, unveiled to us at the very end - usually a line of seven men who form the next top echelon of Communist Party leadership. They're called the Politburo Standing Committee. And it's this group that makes all the big decisions in China for the next five years. What we do not see is how they were chosen.

LING LI: It's a legitimating activity.

FENG: That's Ling Li, who teaches Chinese politics at the University of Vienna in Austria, on a decision-making process that is shrouded in secrecy.

LI: Instead of just appointing new party leaders, they go through all these electoral procedures, which is very much rehearsed and planned. But the result gives the choices of the next generation of party leaders a heightened legitimacy.

FENG: The few rules that are written down in the party charter either aren't followed or they can be changed to produce the desired political outcome. For example, this time, Xi Jinping, the current head of China's Communist Party, wants to stay on beyond two five-year terms despite previous efforts to standardize power transitions.

VICTOR SHIH: The whole norm of serving two terms, you know, 10 years, is a very new thing.

FENG: That's Victor Shih, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of California, San Diego. And Xi Jinping doesn't seem to just want a third term. He effectively could be the country's leader for life.

SHIH: He will serve the third term. But then people are like, well, what about five years from now? What about 10 years from now? Is there ever going to be a plan to have a successor to Xi Jinping?

FENG: Since the 1980s, then-party leader Deng Xiaoping tried to standardize how leaders are appointed and distribute decision-making power among the Politburo Standing Committee. These reforms were meant to prevent an autocrat from taking power for life and reduce the influence of retired officials. But Alfred Wu, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore, says this party congress will likely signal a reversal of all of this.

ALFRED WU: Deng Xiaoping tried to argue for a modernization of Chinese parliamentarian system. So he does not want some senior folks to dominate the politics in China. But now, it looks like someone will be in power forever.

FENG: And now Xi Jinping has amassed enormous power over not just the Communist Party but the country's military and police as well. Still, Wu Qiang, he's an independent political analyst in Beijing, he says people in China are closely watching this party congress. It will showcase just how much of a hold Xi Jinping actually has over the Chinese Communist Party.

WU QIANG: (Through interpreter) Even those who feel fear or regret at the party's political controls have this fantasy that there will be some kind of effort at accountability, even a political pivot where Xi's third term is opposed by officials within the Communist Party.

FENG: That's why this party congress is so important. It gives us a glimpse of where China is heading. But in reality, almost none of what goes on behind the scenes is ever revealed. And that's extraordinary just how little we know about how one of the most powerful countries in the world is run. Emily Feng, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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