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Fly on the Hall


Suppress for a moment your Kremlinological curiosity over the newly designated next-gen leaders of China. Take a little break from the wonkfest of speculation over how the Communists will bid to expand “democracy within the Party” and practice leader Hu Jintao’s newly constitutionalized operating mode of “scientific development”. Difficult, I know.

But rest assured, despite the jacked-up global coverage the event now garners, the Communist Party Congress held last week – a mere twice-a-decade happening in the world’s second-most consequential country – broke no ratings records here in the Middle Kingdom, or anywhere. The stage-managed show of politicking, increasingly at odds with the frenzy in every other aspect of Chinese life, still stupifies the vast majority of the people. Only a minute fraction (folks like me) are totally titillated by the slightest aberration, that penumbra of tension and dissent presumably skulking behind the scenes of ritual unanimity.
And even that isn’t so thrilling. Compared to the grudge matches of the past, the internal discord at the top of today’s Party hierarchy is a pillow fight. Plus the Party is trying to put on a much folksier display. So rather than just look beneath the surface, I found it more refreshing to look at it. You could glean a lot about how Chinese system works on the inside today – or doesn’t – from the outer workings of the Congress itself. That said, media expectations going in, like the people’s, were low.
I was thus surprised right off the bat by the cell-phone short messaging. This was one of many new courtesies provided by the Party Congress press center, who entertained us like kids at daycare whenever the cadres were otherwise occupied. There was a surge in the number of delegate interviews granted on the sidelines, and a free buffet of juice and cookies. On the eve of the Congress, my mobile began to pulsate with incessant notes on the arrangements. One, received around nine or ten p.m., advertised a bus service running from the St. Regis Hotel right on up to the doorstep of the Hall, where security surrounding such events is off-puttingly heavy. The next afternoon, two large buses were parked outside the hotel. A grand total of three journalists got on, counting myself. The bus monitor from the press center was deflated.“We thought this would be a big help, especially for photographers and cameramen…Why so few of you?” Journalists appreciate advance notice, I told him.
But give the Party credit. In the dark old days, when its voice blared loud and clear, barely a peep was heard about certain congresses until the results were issued at the end. Today the Party buzz is comparatively muffled on a daily basis, so the Congress really cranked up the volume. The humorless faces of delegates on Central TV hovered Oz-like from digital big-screens at shopping malls. In turn, chain-stores hung banners saluting them (a reminder China’s rich bourgeois remain a colluder class). The opening ceremony had been televisied that morning, and after Hu Jintao delivered his “state of the Party-state” report, star CCTV interviewer Bai Yansong had Central Party school vice-president Li Junru in the booth commentating. Bai did a good job asking dull non-questions that appeared to come off-the-cuff. Li invoked Hu’s report in every answer.

To really get the populace riled up about a Party Congress nowadays, Beijing has to screw up their lives. That was the net effect, in any case, of the routine traffic stoppages to make way for the convoys of delegates, the added blocks on thousands of web sites and pre-Congress beatings of several dissidents. Beijing even ended up rerouting the annual international marathon. At Capital Airport, domestic airlines began closing their gates fifty minutes ahead of time, instead of the normal thirty. All to “ensure the big one,” or bao da – short for the security mandate to “ensure the 17th Congress is smoothly convened.”

What could go wrong, though? Official media had previewed Hu’s theoretical amendments to the Party charter weeks ahead of time. By the day before the opening, we were fairly confident of the new Politburo makeup, including the presumptive next party boss and premier, courtesy of scoops from Reuters and The New York Times. The assignments may change in future, but they were fixed for now. But it took a whole week, three days more than in 2002, to dispense with the proceedings and confirm the news. The party was bending over backward (by its standards) to project a sense of heightened openness and debate. I was a signal of the solidarity and policy consensus within the central leadership. But it’s also a sign of their weakening hold on the rest of the country, including their own rank and file.

At the Great Hall – for the first time in the Congress history – the 34 province and ministerial delegations were holding “open deliberations” over Hu’s political report. Most opened the floor to reporters’ question in the last half hour. That first afternoon, a third of them were in session, a rare opportunity for a self-guided tour. Ah, the mighty GHOP (as we call the superhuman pile). Never had I been able to cross through so many chambers and corridors. I began to roam. Under the dim glow of Soviet-era gilt candelabras, past frescos of mountains and streams, and into the chambers named for the provinces who meet within. Those of the province-level cities feature up-to-date murals of themselves. I got lost looking for Chonqing’s. But then one of the friendly lads in black tie, who double as hosts and security, approached. “Can I help you?” Guo Peijian, twenty-something, led me on a quarter-mile hike to the Chongqing Hall. Unsolicited, he offered, “I think this time we’re receiving the outside world with a more open state of mind.”

But who is “we”? Always a key question in the PRC. The next morning, not all passages were open. The Party had a full day of open deliberations planned. Too late for the bus (departure time: 7:40 a.m.), I tried hoofing it to GHOP by way of the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Only the army and police at most checkpoints leading to the Hall knew nothing of it. At the mouth of the tunnel closest to our designated entrance I was stopped by a green-uniformed PLA guard: “The People Liberation Army forbids entry.” He pointed me to the next tunnel down, where I was halted by policemen in blue. “There’s no open event today,” insisted one. They directed me to crosswalk directly from the Square, which was double-fenced off. There the guard rebuffed me.“Who told you to come here?!”. A chummy policeman finally got on his walkie-talkie to effort clarification. This became frustrating. “Wo kao…Wo kao,” the policeman cracked: “Friggin aye, Friggin aye!”. Finally he ordered the sliding gate open and dared me to cross. “I can’t tell you what will happen.” I scurried across the four-lane road like North Korean crossing the Yalu where the boy in black permitted me to pass without the slightest concern as to how I’d gotten there. On my way out the PLA guard who first rejected me asked me how I’d gotten in, and sympathized when I told him. “If you come back this way in the afternoon, I’ll let you in.” Not your typical PLA talk.

By Day Two the press center was sending mixed signals regarding press access. For “scheduling reasons”, an SMS abruptly annouced that morning, the Q&A portion of the deliberations would be cancelled that afternoon. But obviously we in the media were suspicious. Had delegates from the day before complained about facing sensitive questions? Too much breaking news from the finance ministers? Were elites popping in for Evening News soundbytes? I asked press center functionaries at the Hall that afternoon. They told me that ‘some’ delegations needed more time to discuss the political report in private, but others would indeed take questions. In the end, most of all of them did. Odd.

A coincidence in the schedule brought China’s two new leaders-in-waiting into the limelight at the same time. They presented a complex study in contrasts.

Liaoning province party boss Li Keqiang a long-time protege of Hu Jintao from his days in straight-laced Communist Youth League. Shanghai party boss Xi Jinping was identified with the rich and powerful interest group of Party princelings (the “GoP”). Xi was the son of a Revolutionary guerrilla and determined reformer who was persecuted thrice by Mao but pioneered the free-market laboratory of Shenzhen. Li was of simple peasant stock. Paunchy Xi had been sent down to the countryside and fought his way back. Solidly built Li started there and worked his way up. Li had been saddled with running tough-luck northern provinces; Xi married a patriotic pop star and“coasted” in booming areas along the southeastern seaboard.
Most important, Li was an uptight mystery man much like Hu; he was practically a Party nobody except that he’d emerged as Hu’s “clone” and ideal choice. Xi was the earthy natural; his status as a somebody had until recently ruled him out.

But now, due to high-level horse-trading and intra-party polling, that logic was subverted. The roles were reversed. Xi became the consensus candidate because he was regarded the most neutral. In the Liaoning Hall, Li sat hunched forward at the edge his seat; he was business-like, unhesistating, and spoke with a rote command of the issues. Here was a man who still had something to prove to people.

Meanwhile over in the Shanghai Hall, Xi, exhibited no such sense of urgency. Finally called on to field a question, he fumbled for words at first, then went on lengthily but listlessly, perhaps a sign of his was just passing through Shanghai (where he’d only been transferred six month earlier). He sat back, exposing acrylic white socks, short pant hems, and a few inches of fatty calf in-between: banishment to the countryside at a young age had left its mark. For a “princeling” married to a pop star, he’s as sweet potato pie as they come.

The media paired their performance as if to suggest they might end up vying power. But as Reuters noted, both toed the revamped Party line of rapid but better-balanced growth. “Scientific development is all about people,” said Xi. “We must pay more attention to people’s livelihoods … like disadvantaged groups, people in the countryside and others in difficult situations.”

It’s the message of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, who Xi and Li respectively are now in line to succeed. Some China watchers have floated the notion that given the competition between two next-generation candidates it would behoove Party potentates to institute a more open and inclusive selection process at the next Congress, lest factional squabbling divide the Party. That appears doubtful. Hu’s feelgood doctrine of “harmoniousness” may be an impossible dream for Chinese society at large, but would appear to leave little room for infighting over – or amongst – the central leadership. It’s the warm fuzzy stuff of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard – as in, everything in moderation.

“It all the right words,” noted one Party newspaper editor. “So that there is little potential opposition to speak of.” But just to make sure congressional delegates would sign off on the proposed leadership lineup, Reuters reported, they were issued a warning intended to make sure they vote for the Politburo “candidates” on the ballots they were given.

At a lunch a couple days before the Congress concluded, a police chief in a small city not far from Beijing asked me my projections for the lineup that emerged. I told him what I’d heard and read in the Times and elsewhere. Under the influence of 104-proof baijiu, he read the entire Politburo reshuffle as he received it on his cell phone. It was exactly the same stuff.

“See, everything’s been set,” he boasted. Then, not noting the irony of his point, remarked: “But I’ll tell you, this time, the seal on information is tighter than ever.”

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