This impression that the party is the sole heir to China's political future seems almost universally held, outside the dissident community. Nobody is able to envision China as anything other than a political monopoly. Democracy, elections, and reforms are all familiar concepts, but ones couched as intra-party possibilities. In other words, there might be an election one day, but it would be Xi Jinping versus Li Keqiang, the man expected to be China's next premier, not dissident Liu Xiaobo.
Another Miao villager, also from Xijiang, was anything but dismissive of the Big 18. Asked to name his favourite Chinese leader, he opted enthusiastically for Hu Yaobang, a reformist party secretary from the 1980s. Praise for Hu then flowed into an unprompted account of why political reform should now be Xi's priority after the Congress. "Actually our government is quite good," he said, "already much better than in Thailand." (Bangkok is closer to Xijiang than Beijing.) "But now is the time for political reform," he continues, "after so long focusing only on economic reform."
This villager didn't really understand what a politically reformed China would look like, or if he did, he wasn't going to share it. "How would an election in China work? I have no idea. I suppose the richest person in China would simply become the president," he says. Money rules Chinese politics, he adds, even at village level, where they already have elections. "We all got to vote, but of course the winner was an extremely rich man. You have to be rich to become the leader." He hasn't heard about cases like the October New York Times report attributing $2.7 billion to Premier Wen Jiabao's family, but says he has no trouble believing them. The party has, after all, acknowledged that it has a problem with graft. Even President Hu openly warned this week that corruption is a cancer that threatens to terminate China's one-party system.
No one spares a kind word for Bo Xilai, the disgraced party chief of nearby Chongqing and now the official villain of the Big 18. Guizhouers want a better deal, but not the sort that the left-leaning Bo offered. "Bo was a bad guy," concludes a third Xijiang villager, who happened to be party to the previous conversation. "He had no new ideas of his own, so he just used those old ideas from the Mao era. I thought it was quite dangerous."
These political discussions, though, never go far. The red banners supporting the Big 18 are intended to engage country folk with the party, but not with politics. Guizhou people watching the Congress have exactly the same questions as foreign China-watchers. What are the leaders thinking? What will they do? What can they do? Like foreigners they fumble blindly for answers, and ultimately they have no say over how those answers will be reached.
It is for this reason, perhaps, that by day two of the Party Congress, the villagers already seem to have moved on. In the palpably poor town of Chong'an, Miao people are oblivious to all the Beijing committees and the slogans; those who have TVs have switched them off and instead are celebrating their New Year with singing, dancing, and -- the main attraction -- buffalo fights. Those bright red banners rhapsodising the Big 18 are here too, but the villagers ignore them. As the water buffalo smash each other in the mud and the spectators crow in delight, I lamely ask a few of Chong'an's peasants how this rivals the wall-to-wall coverage of the Party Congress for entertainment. Most mutter that it's all the same to them, claim disinterest, or visibly recoil at the intrusion. Finally, an old farmer, irritated, turns his only eye on me. "Just watch the cows," he says.