CHINA’S 18TH PARTY CONGRESS
Describing the 18th Party Congress, where Xi Jinping was selected leader, Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian: “Amid the ornate chandeliers and lush red carpets of Beijing's Great Hall of the People, flocks of Communist party delegates gathered to debate their country's future. Yet in these debates disagreements were hard to find. The 2,268 delegates from across China have convened in the capital to participate in the 18th party congress, a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, which began on Thursday morning. The delegates are a diverse bunch: among them are provincial governors, generals, academics, migrant workers and an Olympic swimming medallist. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, November 9, 2012]
Ostensibly they are responsible for selecting the country's new central leadership and screening their superiors' work reports. Yet their true function—to rubber-stamp top party bosses' decisions—is a stark illustration of how carefully choreographed the congress truly is and how little has been left to chance. "In theory they're providing feedback—if there's anything wrong with a report they'll point it out—but usually that's not the case," said Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore. "It's more of a celebration. They provide praise for the political reports."
The leadership's reports were drafted and redrafted for months before being revealed at the conference, Bo said. Xi Jinping was chosen as President Hu Jintao's successor months ago. [Ibid]Brief interviews with delegates showed how unwilling many were to stray from the party line. "We must build a moderately prosperous society according to the principles of scientific development," said Xiao Yeqing, in words taken almost directly from Hu's speech on Thursday. Li Jiayang, a delegate from the ministry of agriculture, opined that "it's important for us to build a wonderful homeland by ensuring that China's wealth is fairly distributed and its growth is sustainable". [Ibid]
One underlying theme of the congress—that the party must maintain its grip on power—echoed in delegates' statements to the media. "Faith and loyalty to the party is the root through which the party can grow from generation to generation," said Jiao Ruoyu, a 97-year-old delegate, according to China Daily. "This spirit should be maintained whatever else changes."
Delegates in China’s 18th Party Congress
Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian: “Originally there were 2,270 delegates selected to attend; two died before the congress began. According to Chinese media reports, 5 percent of delegates are under 35, and the average age is 52. Women comprise 23 percent, a slight increase from the last party congress in 2007. Ethnic minorities comprise 11 percent.” Most delegates hew to a conservative aesthetic: dyed black hair, gold-frame glasses, white shirts and red ties for the men; trouser suits for the women. Ethnic minority delegates wear tall hats and long, traditional robes. Delegates from military and police units wear their uniforms. [Ibid]
Early in the event “delegations held individual public discussions in rooms scattered throughout the hall. At the Tibetan delegation's discussion, the region's deputy governor, Lobsang Gyaltsen, blamed "external Tibetan separatist forces and the Dalai clique" for a string of recent self-immolations, according to Reuters apparently timed to coincide with the conference. [Ibid]
The far-western Xinjiang autonomous region's delegation presented a series of turgid speeches about their development strategy. During a brief question and answer session afterwards, when a foreign reporter asked the region's party secretary, Zhang Chunxian, whether his relationship with the former president Jiang Zemin might affect his chances of promotion, the politician laughed and chided the media for reading tea leaves. Wang Yang, the party chief of Guangdong province, told reporters that government officials may soon be obliged to make full public disclosure of their assets, a sensitive issue after a string of stories in the international media alleging that senior officials' families have amassed enormous wealth. [Ibid]
Five delegates are on the Forbes rich list, with the wealthiest, Liang Wengen, chairman of the construction equipment manufacturer Sany Group, worth almost $6bn. According to the Beijing News, there are also 26 migrant worker delegates, marking the first time the 250 million-strong demographic group has been represented at a party congress. The youngest delegate is swimmer Jiao Liuyang, 22, who won a gold medal at the London Olympics and was chosen to represent the People's Liberation Army at the congress. "Before I joined the party I thought being a party member was a title, but now I feel like being a party member is more like a responsibility," she told the Beijing Times. [Ibid]
A handful of delegates were chosen for their model worker qualities, to espouse the virtues of perseverance and loyalty. Chinese newspapers have featured interviews with Zhu Lijun, a low-level worker at a boat-riding attraction in a Beijing public park. Zhu frequently worked 16 hour days to "ensure tourists' safety", according to the Beijing Times. Shi Guangyin, 60, from Sidahao village, Shaanxi province, has been planting trees since 1984 as part of a government initiative to stave off desertification on China's arid northern frontier, according to the Economic Times. He was the first person to be dubbed a "desert control hero" by the National Forestry Bureau. "The sky in Beijing is getting bluer and bluer," Shi told the newspaper. "Seeing this blue sky makes the common people's hearts happy and raises their spirits." China's official newswire Xinhua painted a glowing portrait of Ren Xiaoyun, a migrant worker from Hebei province who has worked at a "garbage, excrement and urine removal and transportation centre" in Beijing for 16 years. [Ibid]
Atmosphere at the 18th Party Congress
Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The congress is the whopper political event in China, sort of like the U.S. Republican and Democratic conventions and election night all rolled into one. Though the event takes place every five years, this year's gathering is highly important because both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are to be replaced, along with other members of the top leadership. Thousands of party cadres will be in Beijing for the occasion, making heightened security understandable to some extent. Still, at times it can feel like overkill. Though the weeklong congress will be held at the Great Hall of the People, the security cordon extends far beyond Tiananmen Square. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 28, 2012]
Hannah Beech wrote in Time: “Extravagant light displays around the capital announce cheerily “Welcome the 18th Party Congress!” At certain intersections, botanical exhibits with luxuriant plastic foliage spell out the people’s wishes for a safe and harmonious political gathering. The state media reports that 1.4 million volunteers have been mobilized to ensure security during the weeklong leadership conference. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, [Source: 29, 2012]
William Wan wrote in the Washington Post: “The usually crowded Tiananmen Square had been cleared, giving it an eerie, post-apocalyptic feel. Activists had been chased out of the capital, and buildings across the city were draped in flags, flowers and signs, all colored communist red. For weeks, speculative lists have circulated among party insiders—sometimes overlapping, at other times contradictory—of who may be named to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. Most experts believe that the decision has been made in secret by retired party elders and current leaders. But others say the list may be open to attack or change up to the last minute, given the fierce competition among party factions. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, November 7, 2012]
To distract the public from that closed and secretive process, party leaders have stuffed the next days with an array of events, including news briefings, the unveiling of official party reports, and countless meetings and group discussions among the party congress’s 2,270 delegates—all designed to promote the party as a vibrant, democratic organization. Four news conferences also are scheduled in the coming week to address areas of mounting criticism: the party’s opaque system of internal promotions, environmental destruction, the economy, and government censorship and other restrictions on culture. [Ibid]
But answers to the most pressing questions will be gleaned mainly by reading between the lines. Provincial officials and analysts will be poring over a report that Hu is scheduled to deliver Thursday morning on the party’s recent work and accomplishments, parsing its meaning for clues to the party’s direction. Other telling details include not just the names of the new Standing Committee members, but also the roles each person is assigned and whether Hu retains his position as head of China’s military, even as he cedes the party leadership to Xi. [Ibid]
Public Sentiments About the 18th Party Congress
William Wan wrote in the Washington Post: “With China facing a worsening economy, its biggest political crisis in two decades, and growing public anger and domestic unrest, what do people here say about the seismic change about to take place in the country’s top leadership” “Wu suo wei.” It doesn’t matter. You hear this from old men exercising in the park, from young professionals heading home from work and even, in hushed tones, from lower-ranking members of the Communist Party. [Source: William Wan, August 31, 2012]
Whole swaths of Beijing teeter daily between utter apathy and an intense concern that borders on paranoia. On the paranoia side are the authorities, who have been churning out reams of pro-party copy in state-run news media, running endless security drills and generally girding up for the once-in-a-decade event. The country’s thousand-some police chiefs have been summoned to Beijing for lectures. Fire inspectors have already gone through the Party Congress venues from top to bottom—twice. Authorities have been scouring the Internet and municipalities for the smallest signs of unrest and heading them off—at times with force but also, surprisingly, sometimes with concessions to those protesting. [Ibid]
Many of the more coercive actions—such as chasing rural petitioners appealing to the government for help and other troublemakers out of the capital—tend to begin closer to critical events, so it’s unclear just how this year’s security crackdown will compare with those seen during previous leadership transitions. But not since the 2008 Summer Olympics, residents say, has security seemed so tight. Military leaders have issued a flurry of statements assuring their loyalty to the yet-unnamed leaders. Equally desperate to show loyalty, even lowly toll station operators in Jiangsu province have pledged on government Web sites to ease local traffic lines as a tribute to the party meeting. [Ibid]
“You must forgive them, this is not something normal people talk about,” explained one low-wage worker after his co-workers answered one such question with silence at a cafeteria a few blocks west of the Party Congress venue in Beijing’s central Chao Yang district. “This is something for others to think about.” “Why keep up with it? One leader or another, they are all the same,” said another middle-aged man on his lunch break. Speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of government trouble, the man, a driver-for-hire, said, “I’ll know the Party Congress has started when I see police crowding the roads, and I’ll know it’s done when the roads are clear again.”
The indifference is something the government has at times nurtured. For years, the party—looking to preserve its lock on power—has pushed the idea that an uneventful, smooth transition was not only expected, but inevitable. And while American children are taught basic civics and the importance of elections from grade school, the real method by which China’s top leaders are chosen is unknown to anyone but the leaders themselves. Many experts, in fact, think the new line—up was decided at a meeting of party elites at a luxury costal resort early last month. Similarly, while nearly all aspects of the American candidates” lives have been thoroughly explored in the course of the U.S. presidential campaign, most Chinese know little about China’s leading contenders beyond their official hagiographies. [Ibid]
“The truth is, even if you knew such details about such individuals, it matters much less in the Chinese system,” said Huang Weiding, former deputy editor of an influential magazine published by the Communist Party’s Central Committee. When Xi Jinping gives his first few speeches after taking the reins, his words will not be entirely his own, having been carefully vetted by fellow members on the Standing Committee. [Ibid]
“To achieve a top position in the party, your own personality disappears from the public,” Huang said. Because of that, it is difficult to know what, if any, change Xi and China’s other new leaders will bring. “We are walking down a road filled with serious problems,” said one 82-year-old retired party member exercising on a recent day at a downtown park. ‘so, of course, the direction of the country is important and depends on the upcoming meeting. But these are not things for ordinary citizens to know, so what’s there to talk about?”
'No' Tops the Agenda Ahead of China's 18th Party Congress
Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In honor of the upcoming 18th congress of the Chinese Communist Party, here are just a few of the things you cannot do in Beijing. Watch foreign television while you exercise in a health club. Attend an outdoor concert. Do your homework online. Buy a knife in the supermarket. Buy lunch from a food cart. Run a marathon. Mao Tse-tung once said revolution is not a dinner party, but the party congress....isn't looking like much fun, either. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 28, 2012]
Beginning in earnest a month or so before the party congress began, “in the name of security, Chinese authorities have turned to various baffling regulations that are snuffing much of the life out of Beijing, and police have increased their presence to keep the capital's streets free of problems. As a result, many residents are finding the country's political event of the decade to be nothing more than a colossal inconvenience. [Ibid]
Countless public events—cultural, sporting and business—have been canceled or postponed with no explanation and scant notice. The Beijing Marathon, a world-class event normally run in October, was postponed to an undetermined date. Attendees at a legal conference scheduled for Oct. 10 arrived to find the doors taped shut and a notice saying the building had been closed by the fire department. It has become difficult to find street vendors selling jianbing, a Beijing-style fried pancake that used to be as ubiquitous as hot dogs in New York, or someone grilling chuan, the Chinese version of shish kebab. At the city's five-star hotels, guests pounding away on the running machines and cross trainers can't do so to the patter of CNN or a number of other programs: The television sets are all fixed to state-run channels. [Ibid]
Train stations throughout the country have barred anyone who is not a passenger from platforms. A family in Shenzhen, more than 1,000 miles from Beijing, complained about not being allowed to help a 90-year-old relative with his luggage. The websites of China's international schools, which students use for online homework assignments, have seen unexplained disruptions. [Ibid]
Why? "You can't see foreign programs anymore because we are not allowed to play them. I don't know why, but the relevant parties said it was not allowed," said an employee in the gym at the Grand Hyatt. Across town in Sanlitun, a restaurateur was visited recently by 20 municipal inspectors whose leader told him, "Avoid trouble and close your doors until it's over."
The precautions, if intended to avoid scandal, feel somewhat like locking the barn door after the horse has escaped. The country has already seen a fair amount of unwanted attention during the last year or more. In recent months, for example, the wife of a then-Politburo member, Bo Xilai, was convicted of murder, and a top security official, Wang Lijun, sought asylum in a U.S. consulate. Hu Jintao's top aide had to step down after his son crashed his Ferrari, with two naked women as his passengers. The presumptive next president, Xi Jinping, disappeared for 17 days in a vanishing act that remains unexplained. [Ibid]
The congress' inconveniences were drawn out this year because of secrecy over the date. By the time it was announced in September, lower-level government officials who had been left in the dark had already decided it was wisest for them to clear the calendar for much of autumn. "We still have an underground party which is scared to reveal its real moves to the people, even the dates of its meetings," dissident artist Ai Weiwei said in an interview this month. [Ibid]
Li Dan, who runs the Dongjen Center for Human Rights Education, said authorities were using the congress to maintain their grip on the people. "It has become a habit over the years. At the lower levels, officials are afraid they will be punished if anything goes wrong at a crucial moment," Li said. "There is always, every year, some big reason they claim they cannot be relaxed."
China has been lurching from one sensitive moment to the next—the 2008 Olympics, followed in 2009 by the 60th anniversary of the country's founding and last year's 90th anniversary celebration of the Communist Party—each being an occasion to round up malcontents and cancel public events. Event planners try to tiptoe around the land mines in the calendar, anticipating what might be a sensitive time. Promoters of the Dreamer Festival, which features indie rock 'n' roll musicians, this year moved the outdoor concert from Beijing to Tianjin, 70 miles away. But it was ordered stopped anyway, forcing organizers to cancel contracts with artists, airlines and hotels and refund tickets. "We dreamers were too naive. We thought we wouldn't be affected by XX," one of the festival organizers wrote on a music blog, using "XX" instead of writing "18th congress." That's another taboo. The term "shi ba da" (meaning 18th congress) is among those banned from the Internet in China. [Ibid]
Toy Planes, Open Taxi Windows and China's 18th Party Congress
Striking a similar vein Hannah Beech wrote in Time: ‘so let’s say you’ve cooked a juicy roast chicken and need a new carving knife. Or your son wants a remote-controlled toy airplane for his birthday. Or you simply wish to roll down the rear window in your Beijing taxicab. In the Chinese capital these days, such activities are proving complicated, if not impossible. The reason? The looming 18th Party Congress, the Communist Party’s grand powwow during which China’s leadership will undergo a once-a-decade handover. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, [Source: 29, 2012]
All that seems relatively normal for a country that takes its Communist gatherings very seriously. But the flurry of other orders is where things have gotten really wacky. Take those remote-controlled toy aircraft: a female officer at the Shunyi district domestic-security bureau confirmed that at the present time all remote-controlled toy airplanes can only be sold if prospective buyers give their identification details to the store. (A clerk at a children’s store in another district, Wangjing, said her outlet had received no such notification, so the airplane ban appears to be by district.) What do Shunyi district security cadres imagine might happen? An enterprising troublemaker will mount explosives onto a tiny plane and steer it toward Zhongnanghai, the crimson-halled leadership compound in Beijing.
Or consider the small matter of taxi windows. Often Beijing air is so pollution-laden that you wouldn’t want to open your window anyway. Plus, the weather has turned chilly. But on Oct. 31, the air was crisp and clear; the Western Hills could be seen from central Beijing, a rarity. Still, a taxi driver surnamed Zhang said he was told by his superior at his cab company to keep the electronically controlled rear windows of his car shut at all times before and during the 18th Party Congress to “prevent passengers from handing out any leaflets.” The taxi driver said cabs with manual window openers were required to disable their handles. Pictures of such retrofitted cabs have popped up on Weibo, the Chinese microblog service that provides the most open airing of information in the country. An employee at the Yuyang United Taxi Co. said the policy was unveiled for ‘safety reasons during the 18th Party Congress.” Yet an official at the Transportation Administration of Beijing, which supposedly issued this directive, refused to either confirm or deny any such order. Again, what are the worries? That someone will begin passing out pro-democracy flyers from an open taxi window while China’s leaders meet secretly to decide their nation’s political fate?
At least Beijing’s new knife policy seems a little more understandable. An employee at Carrefour, the French grocery chain, acknowledged that her store in Chaoyang district was instructed not to sell knives a few days ago. She did not know when the ban would be lifted. A Walmart staffer said the local police station told the store that all “controlled knives” would not be allowed to be sold during this sensitive time. Customers who go to Walmart to buy cleavers, which apparently are not “controlled knives,” will be able to do so only if they leave their ID information with the store, so that the police can track the buyers, if necessary. [Ibid]
Parts of the Chinese capital are now no-go zones. This week, I was supposed to go to a rehearsal of a cultural event in north Beijing. But no one with a foreign passport was to be allowed so close to a nearby exhibition hall in the run-up to the 18th Party Congress. No one, of course, knew exactly what would be happening in this mysterious exhibition hall. People with Hong Kong identity cards weren’t being allowed into the neighborhood either. Or, in fact, anyone who didn’t have a Beijing identity card. [Ibid]
The one piece of good news? Citizen reporters on Weibo say the price of persimmons, which are ripening across the capital in brilliant bursts of vermillion, have plummeted because out-of-town buyers cannot drive their vans into the city to load up on the autumn fruit. Local farmers have had no choice but to slash prices; four persimmons can now be purchased for as little as 1 yuan, or 15¢. But will a surfeit of cheap persimmons be enough to keep Beijing citizens sated, even as other usual freedoms, big and small, are curtailed?
Jiang Zemin, a Major Force Behind Scenes
At the 18th Party Congress, where Xi Jinping was selected leader of China, former President Jiang Zemin appeared to have played a big role behind the scenes. Tom Hancock of AFP wrote: "He was wrongly reported dead last year, and his political influence was said to have faded as a younger generation assumed control of China, but former President Jiang Zemin has made a surprise comeback. As the Communist Party unveiled its new leadership line-up, Jiang's fingerprints—or at least those of the faction for which he is a leading figure—seem increasingly clear on the transition. [Source: Tom Hancock, AFP, November 13, 2012]
Jiang entered Beijing's cavernous Great Hall of the People for the opening of the party's congress last week directly behind outgoing general secretary Hu Jintao and sat next to him, dozing intermittently. Analysts say the 86-year-old Jiang's prominence at the congress reflects his continued impact on behind-the-scenes negotiations to pick China's next crop of top leaders. Jiang loyalists made up the core of China's most senior decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, headed by current Vice President Xi Jinping who is widely viewed as a consensus figure. Jean-Pierre Cabestan, of Hong Kong Baptist University, said: “It is a bit of a Jiang Zemin clique. Hu Jintao has lost a lot of influence. [Ibid]
Observers associate Jiang, who guided China into the World Trade Organization and allowed entrepreneurs into the party for the first time, with more business-friendly, free-market economic policies. Hu's camp is said to favour a greater role for the state in the economy, and emphasises fairer distribution as well as economic growth. [Ibid]
But the differences are apparently more personal than political. "Jiang plays the role of kingmaker," said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the University of Hong Kong who wrote a biography of Jiang. "He has been very effective in this factional struggle." Zhang Chunxian, the party chief of the restive western province of Xinjiang, who is reportedly an ally of Jiang, refused to comment when asked about the ex-president's continued influence by an AFP reporter. "That sounds like gossip... I don't know where you get your information from," he said, laughing dismissively. [Ibid]
Jiang, who held the Communist party's top post from 1989-2002, was pronounced dead by a Hong Kong TV station in 2011 after a period of illness, prompting furious speculation. But a healthy-looking Jiang has made several high-profile appearances this year, in what analysts see as an attempt to display his political credentials ahead of the congress -- where he sported a shock of nut-brown dyed hair. His leverage on party negotiations was boosted by a recent scandal involving Hu's close political ally Ling Jihua, who according to reports attempted to cover up a Ferrari crash that killed his son, who had two young women in the vehicle. [Ibid]
But Jiang's motivation for reasserting his influence is likely to be more about protecting family interests than promoting a political agenda, analysts said. "In the run up to the congress Jiang wants more of his proteges to be promoted to ensure his legacy and protect his two children," Lam said. Jiang's son Jiang Mianheng, the high-profile head of an investment firm, has brokered deals with foreign firms including Microsoft and Nokia. His younger son is the director of a research centre. "Because his two sons are doing a lot of business, they might be exposed to allegations of corruption," Lam said. "Jiang wants to make sure he can protect them from that."
Jiang has jockeyed into place several allies on the Politburo Standing Committee, leaving outgoing Hu with fewer loyalist on the body. "In terms of people who will unquestioningly do Hu's bidding there's only one: Li Keqiang," Lam said, referring to the man expected to become China's new premier. But Hu has ensured that his own loosely connected group of allies will have long term influence, by promoting his associates into top posts in the military and as regional party chiefs. [Ibid]
"I suspect Jiang's influence might not last beyond the Congress. He is trying to pull some strings but is not a powerful figure," said Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies at Britain's University of Nottingham. Jiang's power is also threatened by continuing doubts about his health, and a likely push by Xi to assert himself once he assumes the top party post, observers say. [Ibid]
Decline of Hu Jintao’s Influence
Jiang Zemin’s influence seem to come at the expense of Hu Jintao. Edward Wong and Jonathan Ansfield wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Hu’s power appears to have been hampered in the past decade by the fact that the committee was heavy with leaders who owe their promotions to his predecessor Mr. Jiang, Mr. Xi among them. Many party insiders blame factional tensions for contributing to Mr. Hu’s rigid aversion to promoting bold policies. [Source: Edward Wong and Jonathan Ansfield, New York Times, November 1, 2012]
One blow to Mr. Hu was the quiet unfolding of a scandal involving a powerful politician, Ling Jihua, who is Mr. Hu’s fixer. Now another stress point is becoming evident: Mr. Hu appears on the defensive over his legacy because of growing criticism that policies enacted during his decade-long tenure were responsible for the excessive growth of the security forces and also stalled an overhaul of the Chinese economy that is needed to maintain its dynamism. [Source: Edward Wong and Jonathan Ansfield, October 1, 2012]
“Right now, I think Hu feels very worried because a lot of people both inside and outside the party have been criticizing him,” said a party intellectual with ties to the leadership. ‘some say he’s the worst leader China has had since 1949. Conflicts in society have intensified; monopolistic and antimarket tendencies in the economy seem to have intensified; and there’s been no real progress on reform.”
Political Jockeying Before the 2012 Party Congress
The 18th Congress in the fall of 2012 was the setting for China's biggest leadership transition in nearly a decade. The interest in Bo Xilai on the sidelines showed how unsettled normally stolid Chinese politics was ahead of the transition.
In October 2011, AP reported: “Top officials from China's Communist Party met for the most important annual conference of the year as they prepare for a sweeping change in the leadership starting next fall. The 200-plus Central Committee members and more than 150 alternates drawn from the government, the provinces and the military are meeting in Beijing. [Source: AP, October 15 2011]
Rivalries among the leadership are never discussed in China's state controlled media and reports on the meeting mentioned only its stated agenda of "reforming the cultural system." "The central authorities have realized that culture has increasingly become a major source of national cohesion and creativity, a major factor in the competition of comprehensive national strength, and a backbone of the country's economic and social development," the official Xinhua News Agency said.
“There are some sharp elbows being thrown around and competition over positions is a lot rougher than we might have imagined,” Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, told AFP. [Source: AFP, March 1, 2012]
Jockeying for Position Intensifies
Willy Lam wrote after the October 2011 meeting, “The just-ended plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Committee passed a resolution on “the reform of the cultural system” that is aimed at boosting China’s soft power and buttressing the country’s “cultural security.” Given that the Central Committee usually meets only once a year, all eyes are on what members of this top party organ might have discussed about the 18th Party Congress, which will witness the wholesale changing of guard. The terse plenum communiqué released by the Xinhua News Agency, however, revealed very little about what went on during the four-day conclave. It only noted the 18th Congress would be convened in the second half of 2012. “The national congress is to be held during a crucial period of the construction of a moderately prosperous society in an all-round way, the deepening of reform and opening up and the transformation of the pattern of economic development,” the communiqué said. The Central Committee also called upon party cadres “to unite and lead all the Chinese people in building a moderately prosperous society in an all-around way as well as accelerating the nation’s modernization drive.” [Source: Willy Lam, China Brief, Jamestown Foundation, October 28, 2011]
Despite the dearth of information, it is apparent that jockeying for position has intensified particularly among senior cadres who want to make it into the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), the CCP’s powerful inner sanctum where seven members are expected to step down in 2012. Since the 370-odd full and alternate Central Committee members rarely meet, a plenum is a good chance for would-be PBSC members to engage in subtle campaigning. In the run-up to the Central Committee conclave, up-and-coming members of the party’s two dominant if fractious cliques—the Communist Youth League (CYL) faction under President Hu Jintao and the Gang of Princelings (a reference to the offspring of party elders)—have been actively trying to enhance their chances for promotion next year.
The plenum also has shed light on the PBSC chances of cadres who are not aligned with either the CYL Faction or the Gang of Princelings. If only because of the growing importance that the party leadership has attached to issues relating to culture, ideology and soft power, Liu Yunshan’the Politburo member in charge of propaganda—has a greater chance of securing the PBSC slot held by Li Changchun next year. While the 64-year-old ideologue has been criticized by liberal intellectuals as a conservative commissar, he has endeared himself to different CCP factions by ably manning the fort of orthodoxy. The former Xinhua journalist also is seen as having been effective in ensuring that destabilizing and “disharmonious” voices are kept out of the public discourse. That the CCP has devoted an entire Central Committee plenum to culture and ideology also reflects Liu’s ability to draw the party’s attention to hitherto neglected areas such as projecting Chinese soft power and safeguarding the country’s “cultural security.”
A key goal of “cultural reform,” as stated by the Central Committee, is that all Chinese should ‘strengthen their cultural self-consciousness and cultural confidence” so as to better “boost the country’s cultural soft power.” Since it has long been the party’s goal to aggressively propagate the China model of authoritarian one-party rule both domestically and abroad, it seems unlikely that “Western-style” political mechanisms will be introduced to the process of picking the CCP’s Politburo members. This is despite pledges made by President Hu and Premier Wen about respectively expanding “intra-party democracy” and adopting “global norms” such as democracy and the rule of law. Befitting the party’s long tradition of factional intrigue, the composition of the new Politburo and its Standing Committee will likely be determined by old-style skullduggery and horse-trading with Chinese characteristics.
Communist Party’s Focus on Cultural Reform
At the secretive annual four-day plenum in Beijing, AFP reported, China's leaders have agreed guidelines aimed at preserving "cultural security" and expanding Chinese soft power. President Hu Jintao delivered a speech approving a document stating that "China's cultural industry will play a more critical part in the country's economic and social development", Xinhua said. [Source: AFP October 19, 2011]
"The country should not only provide its people with ample material life, but also a healthy and rich cultural life," the statement said. It added that it was "imperative to promote the socialist core values" by incorporating them in education, party building, and "ethical progress". Analysts say the meeting was largely aimed at strengthening the party's tight control over the media and the Internet. With more than half a billion Internet users and over 200 million users of microblogging sites, authorities are increasingly concerned about the power of the Internet to influence public opinion in a country that maintains tight controls over its traditional media outlets.
"The reform of the cultural system has to do with ensuring that the media, publications, movies, Internet, et cetera serve the partyâs goal of galvanising patriotic and nationalistic sentiments," said Willy Lam, an expert in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "This will mean even tighter control over people as freedom of expression, especially on the Internet." But in a commentary, Xinhua said the meeting should be seen as a strong signal for China to do better in the cultural field, where it has been lagging. "Culture is emerging as an important part of the country's comprehensive competitiveness," the commentary said, noting that it was the first time cultural issues had been the focus of the plenary session for over 15 years.
Although movie box office takings had expanded 10-fold since 2002 to 10 billion yuan ($1.53 billion), the Chinese do not regard the country as a world cultural power, it said. Xinhua also noted that the ratio of imported to exported television programmes was 15:1, with Friends and Sex and the City among the popular shows. The agency also asked where the Chinese Steve Jobs would be found, in a country that idolises the late Apple boss, but has "comparitively weak creativity in its cultural industry and electronics sector".
Referring to what went on at the annual Central Committee plenum in October 2011, Russell Leigh Moses wrote in a Wall Street Journal blog: “That was quite a head-fake that the Communist Party gave to the rest of the world. Much of the international media spent the last few weeks speculating about changes in the Chinese leadership that were supposed to take place at the Central Committee plenum that concluded last week. With the formal transition of political power to a new group of cadres looming next year, more than a few observers believed that major announcements were in the offing. [Source: Russell Leigh Moses Wall Street Journal blogs, October 24, 2011]
But while a lot of people were looking in one direction, the Party went in the other. The plenum ducked personnel changes and continued to hew to the hardline. So, at the very time when the economy here is slowing and some of the leading financial indicators are dancing in different directions, the Central Committee sidestepped confrontation and presented an initiative in apparently the one area that it could agree on: protecting and expanding Chinese culture.
At first glance, there is nothing stunning about that decision. China’s international influence—it’s so-called ‘soft power’—has been expanding. Even while parts of China’s artistic community have become more activist about shortcomings in society and unafraid to utter criticism to overseas audiences, Beijing’s cultural clout has also been growing abroad. The Communist Party has been active in promoting its view of the glories of Chinese traditional culture and history through traveling exhibits, and established Confucian Institutes to foster the study of Mandarin in foreign lands.
At the upper levels of the Communist Party, conservative leaders have been outspoken in recent months about the need to support national initiatives in publishing and filmmaking, theaters, community centers and schools. Party officials made almost weekly pilgrimages over the past summer to various locations, carrying forth the notion that, as Hu Jintao noted at the Party plenum, “cultural reform and development significantly improves the nation’s ideological and moral qualities—and provides a powerful spiritual force. Many cadres have enjoyed riding the wave of higher prestige for China, especially as more than a few provinces have benefitted from China’s higher profile through foreign investment and tourism.
What’s Behind the Communist Party’s Focus on Cultural Reform
Russell Leigh Moses wrote in a Wall Street Journal blog: “What’s the purpose of all this effort at putting the need for a uniform Chinese culture front and center now, at a major Party conclave? One aim is that many officials want to put the Party back front and center in the lives of people—be that through revolutionary nostalgia or providing cultural guidance. An increasing proportion of Party discourse has taken note of the mental pressures of modernization and the concomitant decline in social morality. Some officials write and act as if a lot more guidance from the top is needed, and that cultural direction supplied by the Party will address moral shortcomings in society. More than a few cadres clearly believe that using “the greatness of Chinese culture” is one way back into the daily lives of citizens—that is, something that they think all Chinese can agree on and celebrate around, and therefore thank the Party’s brand of socialism for. [Source: Russell Leigh Moses Wall Street Journal blogs, October 24, 2011]
There was another agenda being pushed at the plenum: combatting the deepening influence of social media. The speed and reach of micro-blogging—and the competition that Weibo and others now pose for the official media—worry many cadres who think that it is the public, and not the Party, that is shaping society. While Chinese officials cannot yet agree on how to move against those netizens who are nasty towards political authority, the more conservative in the leadership continue to push for a harder line. Phrases such as the “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” in an editorial in People’s Daily last week (in Chinese) may strike some readers as the same old celebratory rhetoric. But these are, in fact, important keywords: a “national culture,” secured and delivered from above if hardliners have their way, could well be accompanied by a deeper crackdown on netizens.
That the plenum concluded that Chinese culture as defined by the Party is something special and deserves protection is unobjectionable to many cadres. But the focus on that issue to the exclusion of a number of others leaves many questions unanswered. For example, does cultural construction really provide for a soft landing for a slowing economy? How exactly will a celebration of national culture address the diverse travails of small businesses in China? Can stimulus packages to cultural industries truly compensate for, say, the fall-off in funding for high-technology projects? Delegates to the plenum may be pretty certain about Chinese culture—in large part because it is something that just about everyone can agree on. But the current Party leadership is still struggling to shape a unifying strategy for economic and political restructuring to hand over to the next leadership. The Party plenum showed that there’s no faking that.
China's Backroom Powerbrokers Block Reform Candidates
Edward Wong and Jonathan Ansfield wrote in the New York Times: “Amid the intrigue and factional struggles, political insiders said that meetings in late July and August in Beijing and at Beidaihe, a beach resort, did not yield substantial results. Party elders and leaders did not make big decisions on policy for the incoming leadership or complete appointments to the Politburo Standing Committee. [Source: Edward Wong and Jonathan Ansfield, October 1, 2012]
A week or so after China’s new leaders were unveiled, Benjamin Kang Lim of Reuters wrote: 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. [Source: Benjamin Kang Lim, Reuters, November 21, 2012]
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. [Ibid]
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. [Ibid]
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. Wang, 57, lost out because of the scandal over ousted Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai earlier this year. Bo was known for promoting "red" culture inspired by Mao Zedong's era, and many private businessmen in Chongqing came to see him as hostile to their interests. The two sources said party seniors decided to drop Wang, who has favoured private enterprise in Guangdong and was seen as a rival of Bo, to avoid further upsetting pro-Mao factions in the party, government and military. "Wang Yang was ousted to avoid Bo supporters creating trouble," one of the two sources said. Bo, in the running to join the standing committee until his downfall earlier this year, was expelled from the party in September and faces possible charges of corruption and abusing power in China's worst political scandal in more than three decades. His wife was jailed for the murder of a British businessman. [Ibid]
Li Yuanchao, 62, was selected in the initial polls in May but party elders forced another vote just weeks before the congress to replace him, the sources said. Liu Yandong, the lone woman candidate, was also denied a promotion. The sources said Li was dumped because he alienated some elders by promoting too many of outgoing President Hu Jintao's allies in his capacity as head of the party's personnel department and by ignoring recommendations by retirees keen to elevate their own men. [Ibid]
Reuters reported on Oct. 19 that Xi, Hu, and Hu's immediate predecessor, Jiang Zemin, agreed on a "preferred list" of standing committee members that included Li. But party elders were unhappy and forced another vote in their group in late October, about two weeks before the congress, the sources told Reuters. The result: Li was dropped in favour of Shanghai party boss Yu Zhengsheng. "Li was voted out in a multi-candidate election in late October. He was out because he did not respect party elders enough," the second source told Reuters. [Ibid]
Power Grabs Behind Shrinking the Size of the Standing Committee
Edward Wong and Jonathan Ansfield wrote in the New York Times, “To outside observers, the move may appear to be little more than bureaucratic reshuffling: trim two seats from the nine-member body that governs China by consensus at the pinnacle of the Communist Party. But the proposal by Chinese leaders to downsize the body, the Politburo Standing Committee, offers one of the clearest windows available into the priorities of the party and the mechanics of power-sharing and factional struggles— on the eve of the 18th Party Congress. [Source: Edward Wong and Jonathan Ansfield, New York Times, November 1, 2012]
The deliberations have taken place in private, in guarded compounds in Beijing and beachside villas east of the capital, but interviews with political insiders paint a portrait of party leaders pushing the change to maximize their holds on power while trying to steer the top echelons of the party away from the sclerosis and cronyism that has set in as more interests have become represented at the top. [Ibid]
Party insiders and political analysts say party leaders are at the moment sticking to an earlier decision to shrink the committee to seven seats, which was the number before 2002, when the committee was expanded in last-minute deal-making before that year’s party congress. Chen Ziming, a well-connected political commentator in Beijing, who was imprisoned after the 1989 pro-democracy protests. “I think the goal is to increase the efficiency and unity at the top level. Everything is decided in meetings, and with fewer people it’s easier to reach decisions.”
The committee is a group of aging men with dyed hair and dark suits who make all major decisions about the economy, foreign policy and other issues. Their meetings are not publicized in the state news media. The party chief often presides, but they operate by consensus, which means decisions are generally made only when the members reach agreement. They also must solicit the input of retired members, now more than a dozen, who at times exert considerable influence, most of all Mr. Hu’s 86-year-old predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Mr. Jiang and other elders are deeply engaged in the backstage negotiations to appoint the next generation of leaders. [Ibid]
Members of the committee represent different patronage networks and hold different portfolios—security, propaganda, the economy and so on—which can result in competing interests. Business lobbies are represented informally on the committee, and the members often have longstanding ties to China’s powerful state-owned enterprises; for example, the current chief of domestic security, Zhou Yongkang, once managed a state-owned oil company and is known to be a defender of the oil industry. “Each...wants to protect his patch,” said a political analyst connected to central party officials. [Ibid]
Reasons for Shrinking the Size of the Standing Committee
Alice L. Miller, a scholar of Chinese politics at the Hoover Institution, said at a recent talk in Washington that a shrinking of the committee represents an attempt by the party to address shortcomings. “The most compelling one is that there seems to be a trend in policy stagnation,” she said, “an inability to arrive at decisions collectively within the standing committee that I think shows up in a number of different ways.” [Source: Edward Wong and Jonathan Ansfield, New York Times, November 1, 2012]
Edward Wong and Jonathan Ansfield wrote in the New York Times, “The idea of shrinking the committee was first laid out in discussions in the summer of 2011, but it did not emerge as a plan until this year, said a central government media official with ties to “princeling” families from the Communist aristocracy of revolutionary leaders and their descendants. “The entire top echelon came to a unified viewpoint on this general direction, including former standing committee members,” he said. “The consensus was that greater unity and efficiency was needed at the top.”
He and others said that the case of Bo Xilai, who was a controversial contender for a standing committee seat even before he was purged in a scandal, also became a rationale for shrinking the body, in part to counter deepening divisions within the party. “If everyone was not singing a different tune, there’s no way that Bo Xilai could have emerged as he did,” said Li Weidong, another well-connected scholar. Another important factor was the feeling among many party officials that the security apparatus has grown too powerful, particularly in the past five years under Mr. Zhou. Some also contend that Mr. Bo, in turn, was Mr. Zhou’s preferred successor. [Ibid]
Mr. Xi and Mr. Hu may both be pushing for the downsizing of the committee, but they have different interests in mind, say party insiders. A smaller committee could, at least in theory, give either man more leverage and authority. And either could be better positioned to maneuver their allies and protégés into top seats at the next congress five years from now, halfway through Mr. Xi’s likely decade-long tenure, when several members of the committee would be expected to retire. [Ibid]
Ferrari Crash Causes the Demotion of Key Hu Jintao Ally
In early September 2012, Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: “China’s carefully scripted leadership transition appears to have suffered another glitch: a fatal car crash involving a Ferrari, a privileged son and two women. According to several well-connected party officials, the crash, on Beijing’s Fourth Ring Road in March 2012, killed the man on impact and left both women seriously injured. All were said to have been in various states of undress, these officials said. It might have been just another example of China’s crassly rich elite exercising bad judgment—except for the identity of the driver...The officials said he was the son of one of China’s most powerful men, Ling Jihua, 55, a close ally of Hu Jintao. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, September 3, 2012]
The connection had apparently been able to be suppressed until early September when Mr. Ling suddenly suffered a demotion instead of a promotion when he left his role as head of the government’s nerve center, the General Office of the party’s Central Committee. He will now lead the United Front Work Department, a less powerful post aimed at improving ties with groups in society, though some analysts said he could still reach the Politburo at some point. [Ibid]
The shift came two months ahead of the once-in-a-decade power transition at the 18th Part Congress. “The question is how this will affect Hu Jintao,” said Joseph Fewsmith, a Boston University professor. “To have to drop Ling Jihua is embarrassing. He lost a key ally here.” The most straightforward analysis is that Mr. Ling’s demise could help the anointed president, Xi Jinping, consolidate power more quickly by sidelining one of Mr. Hu’s protégés. But on another level, Mr. Ling’s downfall could hurt the transition. With Mr. Ling now essentially sidelined, Mr. Hu and his faction may feel slighted, implying that carefully shaped compromises intended to ease Mr. Xi’s rise may be unraveling. [Ibid]
The circumstances surrounding the crash were first posted in June on overseas Chinese Web sites but remained unconfirmed in mainstream English media until reported in The South China Morning Post. Reuters then also confirmed most of the details although one of its sources said Mr. Ling’s son did not die in the crash. Party officials reached by The New York Times confirmed the son’s death, the make of the car and the presence of the two women, as well as their incomplete dress. The details, salacious as they are, are important because Mr. Bo lost his positions partly for “family management” failings. Many party members or their close family members often violate rules by engaging in business or having less-than-exemplary personal lives—but are expected to keep it under wraps. “The central leadership decided that the scandal over the incident was too serious to allow Ling Jihua to be promoted, and Hu Jintao really couldn’t resist,” a retired party official told Reuters,
Evaluating the truthfulness of these reports is tricky because various factions—especially during a transition like the one between Mr. Hu and Mr. Xi—often leak information to discredit opponents. This is why the accident became such a hot potato after it occurred. The government-run Global Times reported on it in March without identifying the victims. It did say, however, that information, including photos posted on microblogging sites, had been deleted. “Whose son was it” who died” said the historian Zhang Lifan. “It was a son no one dared to claim.”
Reuters reported: ‘sources close to the leadership said three young people were in the car at the time of the crash, including the ally’s son, aged in his 20s. At least one of the trio died in the crash, they added, but the victims” identities were unclear. They did not know the son’s full name. One source and a journalist who once worked for a party publication said the son had died in the crash, and the source added that the son’s death certificate had been changed to disguise his identity. [Source: Reuters, September 5, 2012]
The South China Morning Post first reported this alleged cover-up, saying the son’s surname had been changed to Jia”, which has the same pronunciation as the word “fake” in Chinese. The newspaper gave the son’s real name as Ling Gu. A second source with ties to China’s leadership said the son had not died in the crash. The South China Morning Post said two women, one aged in her 20s and the other in her 30s, were seriously injured. A businesswoman with family ties to a senior leader said Ling had been criticised by other leaders, including former president Jiang Zemin, for attempting to hush up the accident.
Bo Xilai Scandal, See Separate Articles
Image Sources: China.org
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated December 2012