Reading the Political Tea Leaves in China

Letter from Beijing

Days after the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress, a weeklong event that marks a once-in-a-decade turnover of power, the center of the nation's capital is silent. Next to the Great Hall of People, where the congress took place, Tiananmen Square is still sealed off. Its more than 4700,000-square-foot vastness is empty, save for a dozen police patrolling in the rain. The giant portrait of Mao on the rostrum overlooking the north side of the square is soaked, as is the giant bouquet opposite his scowl.

On the northwestern side of the city, meanwhile, Wanliu mall is filled with its usual weekend bustle. Shoppers roam foreign-brand stores such as H&M and Guess, and families with young children huddle around tables in KFC and McDonald's. Even though the scene looks and feels different from the empty area of Tiananmen, there is an eerie similarity: Nobody is talking about the transition. When asked about it, a middle-aged woman in a nearby coffee shop waved her hand and put on a pair of headphones.

Official Chinese media portrayed the 18th Congress as a celebration of the nation's impressive achievements over the past decade. As for Chinese citizens, they were not partying. But they weren't out protesting, either. They went about their business, reluctant to comment on the political event that drew the rest of the world's attention. In one sense, that is hardly a surprise, given that China's authoritarian political system maintains control of the entire public sphere. People have long learned to focus on making it through the day.

What is surprising, however, is that under the apparent indifference lies, well, some apathy. "We've known who will be our next leader for years," Chang Qing, a stay-at-home mother in Beijing, told me. She primarily uses "microblog," China's most popular social-networking service, to follow the power transition instead of the heavily censored traditional media. Although also subject to tight government control, microblog's lightening-fast speed makes it difficult for censors to keep up, thus allowing short windows of free speech. Chang said that she sees little momentum for change in the next ten years: "Hu or Xi, it's all the same."

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