/ 14 November 2012

Stage set for Chinese political theatre

Members of the Presidium raise the hands during the closing ceremony of the Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Members of the Presidium raise the hands during the closing ceremony of the Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

China is the world's second-biggest economy, a country of rapidly ascending skyscrapers and keen smartphone buyers, where online debate is ever more outspoken – when the censors allow.

But its power structures remain a throwback to the era of Lenin, rooted in the Soviet-backed Communist revolution that brought the ruling party to power in 1949.

Every five years, following the end of the party congress a new leadership line up – usually nine men, maybe seven this time – chosen in secret back-room negotiations steps out stiffly for China and the world to see.

Then they walk off, normally without having said a word. Cynics compare it to a well-dressed police identity parade.

It is a pointed juxtaposition with Barack Obama's re-election at the US ballot box last week, after months of public campaigning in the full glare of American and global media attention.

Instead China's handover is decided in secret by a handful of power brokers and rubberstamped at the congress, which will this time see Hu Jintao step down as party head to make way for current Vice President Xi Jinping.

Unanswered questions
Pei Minxin, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in the US, said there were "lots and lots of unanswered questions" about the transition.

"I do not believe this advances the cause of democracy in China," he said. "Let us face it, only 2 200 people will be selecting the Central Committee members."

The event is painstakingly choreographed, down to the smartly-dressed women who waltz through the Great Hall of the People serving the delegates tea.

It is replete with Communist jargon – Hu's opening report was entitled: "Firmly march on the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics and strive to complete the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects."

Taxis in Beijing have reportedly had their windows sealed to prevent passengers throwing out "reactionary propaganda", and ping pong balls banned, apparently for fear they may be scrawled with subversive messages.

Controversial topics
Since the 18th congress began last Thursday, none of the delegates – who wear nametags emblazoned with a hammer and sickle logo – has made a statement diverging from the official party line.

But outside the cavernous auditorium – furnished with large paintings inspired by the works of Mao Zedong – the online reactions of ordinary Chinese are markedly different.

The authorities keep a tight rein on the country's social media, deleting posts they disapprove of and censoring search results on controversial topics, but some critical comments slip through.

"I don't receive bribes… and I don't have 10 apartments, so I don't attach importance to the Central Committee and I don't trust it," said one netizen on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter.

"This entire process is a classic black-box operation," said Willy Lam, political analyst at Chinese University of Hong Kong. "It's rule of man, not rule of law."

Western political models
At the opening of the 16th party congress a decade ago, Jiang – who allowed capitalists to join the organisation – said it would push forward the "reform of political institutions" but would not "copy Western political models".

Jiang, who was stepping down at the time, also said that corruption could destroy the party.

Exactly 10 years later, Hu repeated the same pronouncements almost word for word.

But with the Party maintaining an absolute grip on power it is a system that seems set to endure.

In the run-up to the congress and the US vote, one microblog user wrote: "Being American sucks. It's one day before the election and they still don't know who their next president will be. We knew ours five years ago." – AFP