China's backroom powerbrokers block reform candidates

BEIJING - Retired leaders in China's Communist Party used a last-minute straw poll to block two pro-reform candidates from joining the policymaking standing committee, including one who had alienated party elders, sources with ties to the leadership said.

Two sources said the influential retirees flexed their muscles in landmark informal polls taken before last week's 18th party congress, where the seven--member standing committee, the apex of China's power structure, was unveiled.

The clout of the elder statesmen, who include former party chief Jiang Zemin and ex-parliament head Li Peng, underscores the obstacles to even limited reform within senior levels of the party, which has held continuous power since 1949.

The informal polls are the first time the party has flirted with "intra-party democracy" to settle factional fighting over the line-up of the standing committee. It held informal polls in 2007 to decide the larger Politburo.

Two of the candidates voted out of the standing committee were widely viewed as reformers: Wang Yang, the party chief of export powerhouse Guangdong province in the south, and Li Yuanchao, minister of the party's organisation or personnel department.

Neither Wang nor Li could be reached for comment. The party spokesman's office declined immediate comment.

Shedding light on the opaque backroom process, the two sources said votes on the new standing committee were taken among the outgoing 24 members of the Politburo and more than 10 party elders, who had retired from senior posts.

The group held more than 10 rounds of deliberations, including at least two informal polls, over several months at the military-run Jingxi hotel in Beijing and other venues, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Elders wielded considerable influence over the process and forced a second poll in October to push out Li Yuanchao, the sources said.

Eight people were in the running for the five slots on the standing committee beneath Xi Jinping, named party chief, and Li Keqiang, who will be the next premier.

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