China's presumed leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping will be the weakest political leader of recent decades, taking over following a divisive political scandal that has prompted major power struggles within the ruling Chinese Communist Party, analysts said on Monday.
More than 2,000 hand-picked delegates to the 18th Party Congress have been deliberating on who will take over from outgoing president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao since Sunday, official media reported.
As the Party reels from a series of scandals affecting its top echelons, including former Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai's link to the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, the era of Chinese "strongmen" along the lines of Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping has given way to factional struggles that seek the least offensive candidate to all sides.
"Xi Jinping will be a very weak leader," Willy Wo-lap Lam, former China editor of the South China Morning Post and author of five books on China, said in an e-mailed comment.
"Firstly, he is not charismatic and he lacks a power network comparable to the Shanghai faction for [former president] Jiang Zemin and the Communist Youth League faction for Hu Jintao."
"His key crony, General Liu Yuan, is finished due to his association with Bo Xilai."
He said Xi's presidency would be overshadowed by the political heavyweights who enabled his rise to power, the country's previous two presidents.
"Xi will have two mothers-in-law: Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, who nominated him as crown prince in 2007," Lam said.
New generation 'not that powerful'
Liu Dawen, former editor of the Hong Kong-based political magazine Outpost, said a number of China's retired senior leaders had put in an appearance as the Party Congress debated the once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
"This shows that these veterans still have influence," Liu said. "To begin with, everyone thought it was only Jiang Zemin having his say."
"But the fact that all the old guard turned out for the 18th Congress suggests that the new generation isn't that powerful," he said.
"They still seek opinions from the old guys on a lot of matters."
As the Party reels in the wake of the purge of its former political star Bo, reports of the crash of a luxury car belonging to the son of a close Hu aide, and of huge wealth connected to the families of Xi and premier Wen Jiabao have also brought its highest-ranking political elite into the spotlight.
Liu said the Communist Youth League power base of Hu, together with the following of Jiang and the attempt by upcoming leader Xi to build his own support within the Party, would mean Xi's tenure as president would be more complicated than those of his predecessors.
"Everyone is putting their oar in, which will make the personnel negotiations extremely complicated," he said.
Politburo Standing Committee
Cai Yongmei, acting editor of the Hong Kong-based political magazine Kaifang, said the fierce factional struggles meant that it was still unclear whether the nine-member all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee would shrink to seven members.
Nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China's highest decision-making body, are due to step down at the Congress, where 2,270 delegates are meeting to vote on their replacements, although delegates rarely vote against leadership guidelines.
Hu and Wen will retire, while Xi and vice-premier Li Keqiang, who is widely tipped to replace Wen, are expected to have a place on the new committee, which reports say could number only seven.
"What we are sure of is two of them; Xi Jinping [as president] and Li Keqiang [as premier]," Cai said. "The liberal faction inside the Party is hoping that the more open-minded [Guangdong provincial Party chief] Wang Yang and [Politburo member] Li Yuanchao will get a place."
Wen corruption scandal
But she said their positions looked less assured now.
"The [Party elder] supporting them is Wen Jiabao, and now Wen himself is facing a corruption scandal," said Cai, referring to a recent report in the New York Times alleging that Wen's relatives hold U.S.$2.7 billion in hidden assets.
"It's hard to say how much this has affected his voice within the Party until the decision is announced," she said.
A political commentary in Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper on Monday said the 18th Party Congress was effectively a crisis management meeting at which the leadership would seek to consolidate around the middle ground.
It said the Bo scandal had effectively blocked off seats on the Politburo Standing Committee to any of Bo's left-wing, Maoist supporters, while cooling political backing for liberal-minded Wang Yang at the same time.
"Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao have left a largely conservative following for Xi Jinping," the paper said.
And the Apple Daily newspaper commented that Xi looked set to be the weakest and least stable Chinese leader the Party had ever appointed to the top job.
The Party last month expelled fallen Chinese political star Bo from its ranks following accusations of corruption and sexual misconduct, removing his parliamentary privilege and paving the way for a criminal trial.
Bo was also judged to bear "major responsibility" in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, for which his wife Gu Kailai was handed a suspended death sentence on Aug. 20.
His former police chief and right-hand man Wang Lijun was jailed for 15 years in September for "bending the law for selfish ends," "abuse of power," and "defection," after his Feb. 6 visit to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu brought the scandal to public attention.
Reported by Fang Yuan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.