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12/05/2010 02:44 PM

US Dispatches from Beijing

'True Democracy' Within China's Politburo?

Can one find democracy in China? According to a US source in Beijing, the country's Politburo is more interested in consensus than decrees -- on all issues except for Tibet. But, US diplomats allege, most of the country's top functionaries maintain close ties with various industries.

Is there any place in dictatorial China where votes are taken and discussions held -- rather than orders given and decrees issued? Indeed there is. And it is where one would least expect it: In the heart of Chinese power.

If one is to believe US diplomatic sources in Beijing, "true democracy" prevails in the Politburo of all places, within that little-known group of top apparatchiks consisting of 24 men and one woman.

No one outside China's ruling cadre knows who at the top of China's power structure decides what and why. No one knows who thinks what, who is allied with whom and who really has influence. Public debates are rare. But by talking to leading functionaries, experts from the US Embassy in Beijing managed to get a glimpse inside of China's inner circle.

The newly revealed US embassy dispatches provide surprising details. Hardly any decisions, no matter how sensitive they might be, are decreed by head of state Hu Jintao or head of government Wen Jiabao. Decisions instead tend to be taken collectively by top Communist party functionaries. When vital policy issues, such as relations with Taiwan or North Korea, are up for decision, all 25 Politburo members are involved. Lesser issues are resolved by the nine-member standing committee.

'A Consensus System'

The committee, though, does not decide by vote, according to cables sent from US diplomats back to Washington. Instead, issues are weighed up and discussed for as long as it takes to arrive at a consensus. In the decision making process, to be sure, Hu Jintao's "views carry the greatest weight," US diplomats quote a source with access to the inner power circle as saying. "It is a consensus system," the source said, "in which members can exercise veto power."

It is a system that ensures that none of the Communist party functionaries becomes too powerful. But it is a principle, US diplomats have been told, that doesn't apply to one particularly touchy issue: that of the Dalai Lama and Tibet. On that subject, China's president and Communist party head Hu Jintao "is firmly in charge."

In his eyes, the Dalai Lama is a traitor and a separatist. Rebels are to be severely punished or re-educated -- a view that Hu himself applied during his time as Communist party chief in Tibet from 1988 to 1992. Those who would prefer a milder approach risk their careers, US diplomats have been told.

On other issues, however, informants told American diplomats that Chinese leaders were often left to pursue their own interests. Politburo member Zhou Yongkang, who heads up Chinese security services, is said to be closely linked with the state oil industry, for example. Jia Qinglin, in slot four of the Chinese leadership hierarchy, allegedly maintains close contacts with Peking's construction industry. Hu Jintao's son-in-law was the boss of the big internet firm sina.com. One source claimed that Wen Jiabao's wife controlled the precious gems industry.

In addition, many of the 25 Politburo members are thought to maintain "close ties" to real estate magnates, many of whom are likewise party functionaries. Posts within the Chinese Communist party, US diplomats believe, sometimes go to the highest bidder. In order to turn a quick profit, such functionaries, sources told the US, are especially eager to push for economic growth, no matter what the environmental or social price might be.

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