BEIJING — China's historic 18th Communist Party congress ended on Wednesday, Nov. 14, with no big reveals, few questions answered, and a whole lot of guessing about how China will be governed in the decade to come.
At the closing ceremony of the weeklong congress, more than 2,200 delegates gathered in the Great Hall of the People for an impressive show of pageantry and self-control. Hundreds of Chinese and overseas journalists waited for more than an hour in a room at the back of the hall before being led, slowly, through a line down a long corridor and up three flights of stairs that took 45 minutes to clear, into the gallery.
There we watched as the party's elite listened to speeches, voted in perfect unanimity, and applauded themselves.
What we now know: the 10 leaders of the 350-member Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. On Thursday, they will vote to select the new Standing Committee -- that powerful group whose makeup could indicate the new leadership's potential bent toward reform or lack thereof. Among the group of 10 are the reform-minded Guangdong party chief Wang Yang, and the lone female, Liu Yandong, a state councilor and party elite.
The list of what we don't know is far longer. For instance, in what direction is China headed?
Thursday morning, China will unveil to the press the next Politburo Standing Committee -- the group that will take over as the core decision-making body for the world's second-largest economy. In truth, the decisions have all been made in private, over months of wrangling and jockeying out of public view. What we're seeing now is a performance, a great show of unity as one president prepares to exit and another rises to the top.
Even the current president's speech to the congress was full of simple statements of fact and repetition of slogans. This was not the time to go off script (not that Hu Jintao has ever come close).
"The congress elected a new central committee of the party and replaced older leaders with younger ones," Hu told the delegates.
"We are convinced that all the decisions and plans adopted and all the achievements made at the congress, which are of major current and far-reaching historical significance, will play an important role in guiding the all-around development of the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics and the great new undertaking of party building," Hu added.
An American friend (neither a journalist nor a taxi driver, but someone who doesn't wish to be named) who has lived in China for 15 years or so suggested to me that I was looking at the party congress all wrong. Rather than comparing China's leadership transition to elections elsewhere in the world, he proposed, we should view it as the annual meeting of a massive billion-dollar corporation.
"They're not going to talk about shareholders setting themselves on fire," he said, referring to the lack of mention of the recent spate of self-immolations on the Tibetan plateau. Domestic media, he suggested, function like corporate communications -- they're on hand to promote the message.
And most importantly, he added, "They're not going to tell their competitors the company secrets."