BEIJING — China's next leader is tall
and self-assured, with an expansive smile and a deep, resonant voice.
This is as much as we now know for
certain about Xi Jinping after his first speech to reporters and broadcast audiences
Thursday morning as the new chairman of the Communist Party of China. Given his
apparent charm and the fact that most have never heard him speak at length
before, it's not as trivial as it may sound.
Xi sprinkled his speech with intriguing
language about forging iron and a famous mountain, skipped references to
Marxism and Mao Zedong Thought, and took no questions from the hundreds of
reporters allowed into the massive Great Hall of the People, where the Congress
was held. His six fellow leaders were silent, looking far less comfortable than
he as they were announced as the new Politburo Standing Committee, China's top
While Xi's physical bearing is inarguably
more affable that that of the man he'll replace, President Hu Jintao (a man who
makes a statue looks lively), Xi's greatest challenge will be in bridging the
chasm China's leaders have created between themselves and the people -- not
just in China, but elsewhere in the world.
There are few people who have seen as
many power transitions in China as 91-year-old Sidney Rittenberg, who first
came to China shortly after the 1945 7th Party Congress and was back during this, the 18th. Rittenberg was the first
American to join the Chinese Communist Party,(he left the party in 1980). When he went to work with the Chinese communists in 1946
as a journalist and translator, he found that the party's greatest strength lay
in people's connection to it and its leaders.
"You bet it was different. It was
very, very different," Rittenberg, who now works as a consultant helping
American companies in China, said in an interview Thursday. "You had a real flesh-and-blood
relationship between the guys up at the top and ordinary people."
Rittenberg recalls working closely for
six months with one man who seemed to understand that strength particularly
well. The man was Xi Zhongxun, one of the original revolutionaries who served
as a vice premier. Because of
those months traveling and working with the elder Xi, Rittenberg believes his
son, Xi Jinping, China's next president, may be something of an outlier in the
new leadership lineup, and the strongest potential chance for reform.
"The thing that makes me think that is
I knew his father so well," he said. "His father was a wonderful man, probably
the most democratic-minded man in the whole leadership, therefore he was always
in trouble." (In later years, the elder Xi may not have been so democratic
minded, as there are conflicting accounts over his stance
on the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.)
"He was very close to ordinary
people," Rittenberg said of the elder Xi. "He was a very folksy kind of person,
very direct. He would tell me what was going on, straight in the shoulder,
because we were friends. I just hope some of that rubbed off on the son."
There is little doubt the party's top
leadership is removed from the people it governs. In recent years, the party
has become, for countless citizens, linked with corruption, wealth and power,
far from its origins and of little relevance to their daily lives. Ordinary people
in Beijing this week repeatedly told me that the historic 18th Party Congress
and once-in-a-decade leadership transition had nothing to do with them.
In an October report, the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China, a U.S. government agency that monitors that country's human rights situation, described "a deepening disconnect between the growing demands of the Chinese people and the Chinese government's ability and desire to meet such demands."
"In a year marked by a major internal political scandal and leadership transition, Chinese officials appeared more concerned with ‘maintaining stability' and preserving the status quo than with addressing the grassroots calls for reform taking place all over China," the commission said.
Even beyond China, Rittenberg noted, the
party has lost its touch with people. He said that when Premier Zhou Enlai,
second-in-command to Mao, was leading China's international relations, he, and
later, Deng Xiaoping, China's leader in the 80s and 90s, always made a point of
speaking to the people of other countries, not just their governments.
In the past 15 years, party leaders
have withdrawn, growing further distant from the masses, even as China for the
first time has made massive outbound investments in other countries. The
country's reputation has suffered and conflicts are simmering with its
neighbors over islands and territorial waters.
There's little doubt that China's
leaders know this.
But can Xi and his team -- led by six
other men without such outward personality or apparent inclination for reform
-- truly reconnect with a Chinese citizenry from which his predecessors have so
effectively distanced themselves? And with a world that increasingly sees China
as a threat?
Xi, with his outward charisma and
family lore, may be the man for the job.
Xi's affability has already gotten
results from one constituency: Weibots. The Wall
Street Journal reported Thursday that China's microbloggers are
lapping up Xi's more human persona.
"Talking like a human is an important change," The Journal quoted a tech executive as
Undoubtedly, Xi's demeanor could be a
shift. But he'll need more than charm to bring the party and the central
government back to where it's relevant to the people.
"He's going to have big mountains to
climb," said Rittenberg.
I asked Rittenberg if he ever imagined,
back in the revolutionary days, if China would become the country it is now.
Never, he said.
"I thought it was going to be a nice,
reasonable, democratic pluralistic economy, which is what Mao had outlined, and
that also, the party at that time was squeaky clean," he said. "This is a
totally different party. This is not the party that carried out the revolution.
It doesn't behave the same way. It doesn't talk the same way, it doesn't act
the same way."
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
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
"The congress elected a new
central committee of the party and replaced older leaders with younger ones,"
"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,"
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."
As the 18th Party Congress concludes this week, the
real questions begin about where China's new leaders will take the country.
Hundreds of miles from Beijing, in the caves that sheltered
the founders of the People's Republic of China in the 1930s after they
regrouped from their Long March, there are clues about the past and hints at
how China has changed in recent times.
Earlier this fall, I
visited the Yan'an caves where the revolutionaries that led the party to power steeped.
Among throngs of nostalgic tourists, I met a chatty middle-aged woman paid to
keep an eye on them. She sat on a bench outside the caves, watching passersby,
her eyes darting between two cell phones. I thought she was waiting for
someone. She was, in fact, monitoring me, along with everyone else.
"If a lamp breaks, I report it and people in charge of
electricity find the exact spot on the map and deal with it immediately," said
Liu Xiaoli, 48, who calls herself a "digital chengguan" - a member of the petty crime para-police forces,
China's ever-present urban management officers who have a earned bad reputation in
many places as thugs. "If a shop
sells fake goods and is reported, it can be easily located. If a taxi driver
charges too much and is reported, people will deal with it."
Liu was trained in electronically studying her neighbors this
fall, when a monitoring program that began several years ago in Beijing made
its way west to Yan'an, the cool mountain city in the north of Shaanxi province
that became China's Red capital for more than a decade when the Communists
established their base there in 1936. She reports bad deeds via cell phones,
her colleagues using GPS to track down the culprits.
In the decade since President Hu Jintao and the current
ruling body took power, the country's security apparatus has grown to mammoth
proportions. The "Harmonious Society" has come with a steep increase in
domestic patrols, high-tech monitoring and internal security forces. A great
deal of that hardware came as security for the 2008 Olympics and today, it can
seem no corner of Beijing or any other major city is untouched by surveillance
For several years, conventional wisdom has held that times
for China's critics, including journalists, lawyers and NGOs, were getting
tougher leading up to and hinging on this party power transition now underway.
That much of the paranoia about criticism of China's ruling party was related
to the CCP's extreme need to have the transitional moment run smoothly, without
major disruption. In the long lead up, things did get worse for the many
activists, writers, rights lawyers and others who were arrested and silenced
these months. But what happens now?
The fate of the domestic security machine, which for three
years now has had a larger
budget than China's military, is a massive question. And it's a safe bet it
won't go quietly away.
In September, the
European Union Institute for Security Studies, a Paris-based
think tank affiliated with the EU, wrote about the buildup, saying, "gaining or remaining in control of
the apparatus is one of the major issues for the CCP's leaders."
With the power changeover firmly underway, and a new team of
leaders set to meet the press on Thursday morning, the CPP can relax, right?
Don't bet on it.
Joshua Rosenzweig, researcher at the Center for China
Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said things might even get
worse in the short term as new leaders try not to appear weak as they deal with
ongoing problems and protests.
"I don't think that there will be an appreciable change in
the priority the party gives to preserving social stability, and, therefore,
there is little reason to anticipate a kindler, gentler approach to those who
are seen as threats to that stability," he said. If anything, there is likely
to be an effort to expand the scope of ‘social management' efforts to try to
exert as much control as possible over potential trouble spots and troublemakers."
The digital chengguan Liu doesn't expect to give up her
cells phones and stop watching people any time soon.
"Look -- this is me. I'm sitting here. So I'm monitored," she
said with some delight, pointing to a blue dot on the map displayed on her
screen. "People know my exact position."
Moving in synchronicity with their
interchangeable smart suits and tidy hairstyles, the most noticeable women at
the 18th party congress are, by design, part of the backdrop. Several hundred
young women, chosen from a nationwide search, are working during the week as
"ceremony girls," a ubiquitous feature of official China, inside both the Great
Hall of the People in Beijing where the congress is being held and the media
center in the Western part of the city, as the Chinese Communist Party installs
its next generation of top leaders.
Serving tea, ushering people to their seats, and
standing in neat rows while posing for the cameras, "ceremony girls" are ever present
in official China, from the sexy soldiers marching in China's 60th-anniversary
parade in 2009 to the young women delivering medals at 2008's Beijing Olympics.
Their constant, attentive presence is a glaring reminder
of what is forever missing from China's top tier of power: women. They can pour
tea with a smile, but they don't get a seat at the table.
The only woman with an outside
chance of ascending to the Politburo Standing Committee, China's elite
decision-making body, is State Councilor Liu Yandong, currently the only woman on the 24-member Politburo, the elite
decision-making body from which the Standing Committee is selected. No woman
has ever served on the Standing Committee; the most politically powerful women
in modern China have been the wives of top leaders Chairman Mao Zedong and
Premier Zhou Enlai. Whether the Standing Committee lineup revealed later this
week includes seven or nine members, they will almost certainly all be men.
While 521 women serve
as delegates in this party congress -- 23 percent of the total, up from 18 percent a decade ago
and higher than the 20 percent that women make up in the U.S. Senate -- the members of China's ceremonial electorate have far less
influence over the process than their U.S. counterparts.
Gender discrimination often seems to be getting
worse in China: Although a large percentage of Chinese women are employed
(70 percent, compared with 25 percent in India), urban Chinese women earn
about 67 percent of what men make, according to a 2010 survey from the All-China Women's Federation.
This summer, women in
Guangzhou shaved their heads in protest of growing discriminatory policies around the country that require girls to score higher than boys on college
China's ranking in the World Economic Forum's annual Global Gender Gap
report, which measures gender parity, is falling, from 57th place in 2008 to 69th
Annie Chan, head of the Hong Kong-based Association for the Advancement of
Feminism, has researched the status of women in China and found that as the
state-run system has given way to capitalism and industrialization, women's
gains under the early years of the Communist Party have eroded.
"The gender-equality situation in China has not
actually been improving in the past 30 years," says Chan. "A small percentage
of women can rise to the top in business and some sectors, but far more women
are stuck in low-paid positions and service industries."
Chan said there is "massive need" for policies
that will improve women's standing in China -- things like girls' education,
affordable child care, and basic social services. "If any country prioritizes
economic development and social stability ahead of social development, this
kind of thing is bound to happen," she says. "Historically and culturally,
women in China have always been treated and still are treated as less
important." Just ask the People's Daily, the official newspaper
of the Communist Party, which on Nov. 9 published a slide show
called: "'Beautiful scenery' at 18th CPC National Congress." The scenery in
the slide show? Women.
Beijing's Tiananmen Square is 109 acres of mostly
concrete slabs and stone monuments, not the most flammable of famous world
The presence of fire-suppression teams on the
square this week at the start of the Communist Party's 18th national congress,
happening in the Great Hall of the People just across from the square, has raised
more than a few eyebrows. In recent years, the most notable fires at Tiananmen
have been from people setting
themselves ablaze in protest.
I called the local Tiananmen management office,
the congress media center, and a local police station on Thursday, Nov. 8, and
Friday to ask why these stern firefighters with extinguisher packs at the ready
were posted on the square this week. I got no answers.
It's impossible to see the fire brigades and not immediately
think of the wave of self-immolations happening on the other side of China. As
the congress meets to affirm the country's new leadership lineup, desperate protests
in Tibet over China's control of the region have increased.
In the 48 hours that saw the opening of the 18th national
congress in Beijing, six Tibetans set
themselves alight in China's western reaches. Tibetan rights groups say the
latest wave of self-immolations on the Tibetan plateau sparked mass protests at
monasteries. To date, at least 69 Tibetans since early 2009 have self-immolated
in protest of China's policies in Tibet.
Such violent protest would constitute a crisis
elsewhere, but in China discussion of the Tibetan issue is carefully coordinated.
Tibetan areas remain highly restricted, and independent journalists have
learned little of what's happening in recent months.
In his lengthy work report
(46 pages in English) at the opening of the party congress, President Hu Jintao
made no specific mention of the problems roiling across the Tibetan plateau. He
touched on China's minority affairs only briefly, calling for "intensive
education about ethnic unity and progress" and greater development in minority
Ongoing educational and development policies have
been at the root of turmoil in many of China's minority areas, where ethnic
minorities like Tibetans have said their culture is being erased and the
resulting economic benefit often goes first to the predominant Han Chinese, who
make up roughly 92 percent of China's population.
"We should consolidate and develop socialist
ethnic relations of equality, unity, mutual assistance, and harmony so that all
ethnic groups in China will live and develop together in harmony," Hu added.
In 1989, as party secretary of Tibet, Hu presided
over a violent clampdown on Tibetan protests just a few months ahead of the
deadly June 4 crackdown on Tiananmen Square.
It would be difficult to argue that the Tibet
situation has done anything but deteriorate under Hu's watch of the past decade.
Since riots in Tibet's capital, Lhasa, and elsewhere in March 2008 in the lead-up
to the Beijing Olympics, China has implemented hard-line policies across
Tibetan regions, with increasingly restrictive control of monasteries, the
heart of Tibetan religious and political culture. Whereas the United States and
others once urged China to negotiate with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government
in exile, that concept seems almost impossible today.
Among the 2,270 representatives at the party
congress in Beijing this week, there are, as always, more than a dozen
delegates from Tibet, most ethnic Tibetans dressed in colorful indigenous
clothing and jewelry. The cameras inside the Great Hall of the People have
highlighted them frequently. A top Tibetan official criticized
the "separatist" Dalai Lama for his 10-day trip to Japan; Xinhua, China's
official news agency, reported
comments from another top Tibetan official that "inciting people to
self-immolate is a 'crime of murder.'"
And while the party congress is silent on how to
fix the underlying problems in Tibet, the fire brigades stand watch outside on
China has an
often-deserved bad reputation for its PR skills, but there are times other
governments must envy its ability to manage journalists -- and not just its
government could draw more than 1,700 foreign reporters, and likely at least as many domestic
journalists, for an event with no advance agenda and little chance to talk to
the people running the show? Perhaps only the Vatican when the cardinals pick a
Chinese and foreign journalists filed through Tiananmen Square in the center of
Beijing, past security checkpoints and into the hulking parliamentary building
the Great Hall of the People early Thursday morning to witness the start of its
historic once-a-decade leadership changeover. Based on precedent alone, we
expected a speech from the current party chairman, Hu Jintao, but even that
wasn't a certainty until is happened.
Hu took center
stage to open the carefully choreographed leadership transition that starts
with this 18th National Congress, delivering a speech to more than 2,000
delegates who will approve the country's new management lineup. Until that last
day, although solid, educated guesses are coming through, the precise lineup
of the next Standing Committee, the nine (or seven) member top decision making
body in China, remains a mystery.
and delegates alike tried gamely to stay awake, Hu, who has led the party and
the country for a decade, peppered his lengthy and slogan-filled report with a
few choice words about what his successors must do. Among the notable:
reform: "We must continue to make both active and prudent efforts to carry
out the reform of the political structure, and make people's democracy more
extensive, fuller in scope and sounder in practice. However, we will never copy
a Western political system."
And on the
issue that has become the party's biggest public problem: "Opposing corruption and building an honest and clean
government is a clear stance the party has been adhering to and is an important
political issue the people have been paying attention to. If we fail to handle
this issue well, it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse
of the party and the fall of the state."
It could have
been worse: Hu read just an hour and 41 minutes of highlights from his 46-page
speech. The abbreviated address didn't keep the rapt attention of the press
gallery, however. By the end of the first hour, half the chairs reserved for
media high on the third floor of the immense hall had emptied. Dozens of restless
reporters fled down the stairs to stand in a growing long line, waiting for
printed copies of his speech, preferring that drudgery to listening to Hu in
watchers not in the know (just about everyone outside the delegates and the
party leadership) the day proved an exercise in reading between the lines. Observers
closely scrutinized the seating order as they listened for clues. How many
times would Hu say "scientific development"? Would Mao Zedong Thought fade into
the background of history? (It did not.)
placement of former party chief Jiang Zemin, Hu's 86-year-old predecessor who
was rumored to be near death last year, was noteworthy. But even Jiang's appearance
was anti-climatic; a popular photo series showed him yawning and
straightening his tie as Hu spoke.
worse for wear was former Premier Li Peng, a figure widely reviled in China for
his hardline stance against student protesters in 1989 (and also rumored to be
dying at various points in recent years). In the absence of concrete
information, seating arrangements on the stage and postures became fodder for
guessing at what is going on behind the scenes, where all decisions are made in
Why was Wen
Jiabao, the popular premier whose family wealth of $2.7 billion was exposed in late October by the New
York Times, smiling so broadly for the entire ceremony? Why is former Premier
Zhu Rongji so alone as a retired top official in not dyeing his hair with
something resembling black shoe polish? And was it our imaginations or was Ling
Jihua, the recently demoted official whose son reportedly died in a fiery late-night Ferrari crash in
Beijing earlier this year, pushed so far to the end of the front row that it
seemed he could slip off the stage?
At a reception before
the congress opened this week, China's state news agency Xinhua quoted one official as saying: "I hope
journalists can report the CPC and China in a full and truthful light." While guesses and news will trickle out
over the next week, like that puff of white smoke from the Vatican chimney, we
won't know for sure who's in charge until the show is over.
no shortage of opinion in China about the U.S. election this week -- most
evidently in support
of President Barack Obama's reelection. Unscientific polls
of Chinese citizens have put Obama's edge over Mitt Romney at somewhere between
a majority and landslide.
to find people in Beijing to talk about China's own leadership change, the
wheels of which go into motion Thursday, is another matter. Despite the
historic events underway in the Chinese capital, most people are reluctant to
talk about the process or the political leaders involved. China's distant,
closed-off leadership transition couldn't be more different than the heated,
emotional U.S. campaign that just ended.
not very clear about how it works; it doesn't really concern us ordinary people,"
Wen Li, a 32-year-old from Hebei province doing construction work in Beijing, told
me when I asked him for his thoughts on the upcoming 18th Party Congress.
answer is typical, a glaring contrast with China's apparent fascination with American-style
democracy. I asked others, including retirees in a park who mostly just
chuckled at the question, young women at a shopping mall who said they didn't
know any details, and an IT professional on his lunch break. He had opinions,
but didn't want them -- or his name -- published.
usual in China, the cover of the Internet allowed people to speak more
freely. On late Tuesday and early Wednesday, more than 3 million people
posted about the U.S. elections on Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter.
Many of those posts drew a comparison between open politics in America and the
closed process in China's Great Hall of the People, where 2,270 delegates from
across the country will gather this week to elect the Communist Party's top
tier of leaders. After a week of deliberations and secret ballots, the congress
will reveal a new Politburo Standing Committee, China's most powerful group of
decision-makers. Even the exact number of members of the Standing Committee
(now nine) is unclear.
expected anointment of Vice Premier Xi Jinping as the replacement for party
head Hu Jintao marks a historic, once-in-a-decade transition in power. But for Chinese
people, like just about everyone else save academics and journalists trying to
read between the lines, the public process is about as exciting as watching
a press conference Wednesday, the party put another spin on it. A spokesman for
the congress, Cai Mingzhao, spoke
of "socialism with Chinese characteristics," "democratic rights enjoyed
by the Chinese people," and Chinese
people as "masters of the country." The fact remains that China's next leaders
will be chosen by a very small group of people in secret.
no accident, of course. On Wednesday, the nationalist Global Times newspaper warned in an
editorial on U.S.-style campaigning to "be wary of populism led by democracy."
governments have given up their responsibility to lead society and now only
shuffle voters and votes," the Global
Times wrote. "This should alarm Chinese society. The spirit of hard work
and effort must not be replaced by unrealistic welfarism."
disconnect between the Chinese public and the leadership change underlies
deeper issues, however, than just political styles and systems. Historian Zhang
Lifan, a critical voice and an expert on the chronicles of China's Communist
Party, said that this power transition is crucial, and so is the gap between party
and people. "The past 10 years has been a time that China stagnated and
declined," Zhang said in an interview in Beijing. "The economy has grown, but
the common people have not shared in the spoils of China's reform and opening."
government corruption and a severe widening in the country's wealth gap have left
most Chinese people disenchanted and further disengaged from the people who run
the party. "Society is more divided into two different worlds and the country
has not cultivated a strong and stable middle class," Zhang continued. "Now
everyone is dissatisfied. People with vested interests, including those inside
the system, are disappointed."
China's top leaders put a premium of careful planning and engineering, their
distance leaves citizens with no investment in the outcome. "No matter how
excellent the top planning is, if the common people don't share in it, it will
only end up being castle in the air," he said. "The party has lost its cohesion
and the power to get a united voice and to make a good decision. The best time
of reform has gone. The party is on a trend of disintegration, so it will be
hard to revive."
FENG LI/AFP/Getty Images