China held landmark straw poll to choose top leaders: Xinhua

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s ruling Communist Party has lifted the lid on the opaque backroom selection of the country’s top leaders, revealing that it had held a straw poll for the first time in May to decide on the membership of its top decision-making body.

Chinese President Hu Jintao (R), and Xi Jinping, newly-elected General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), also chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission, shake hands as they meet with delegates, special delegates and observers to 18th National Congress of the CPC at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 15, 2012. Picture taken November 15, 2012. REUTERS/Xinhua/Li Xueren

The party, which has held power since 1949, has flirted with what it calls intra-party democracy as it strives to maintain its legitimacy in the face of widespread corruption, growing social unrest and rising inequality, even as the world’s second biggest economy bounds ahead.

The party held a meeting of leading cadres in Beijing in May and “democratically recommended” members of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee and the 25-seat Politburo, state news agency Xinhua said late on Thursday, hours after new line-ups for both councils were unveiled.

Such a poll hardly signals a desire for democratic political reforms, but it suggests that the party is trying to increase accountability and subjecting its members to more checks and balances.

In previous congresses, held once every five years, voters had little choice: the number of candidates was the same as the number of seats in ballots for Politburo and Standing Committee members.

Leadership changes are thrashed out in advance through horse-trading between party elders and retiring leaders anxious to preserve political power and protect family interests. But the changes must also go through a choreographed election process.

Xinhua said the cadres took into consideration the “party spirit” of candidates, jargon for their loyalty to the party.

They also took into account whether the candidates were “just and honest”, their abilities and integrity, their age as well as portfolios. Politicians 68 or older are not qualified to join the Standing Committee.

The “democratic recommendation” process involved informal discussions while the views of unspecified people were fully solicited, Xinhua said. It did not elaborate.

Reuters reported last week that outgoing President Hu Jintao and his likely successor, Xi Jinping, were pushing to adopt a more democratic process for choosing the top leadership in a bid to boost its legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

Xi replaced Hu as party and military chief on Thursday, only the second time the party has managed a peaceful transition in more than six decades. Xi is likely to succeed Hu as president during the annual session of parliament next March.

Reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by Sui-Lee Wee and Robert Birsel