Reading the Political Tea Leaves in China

Letter from Beijing

The entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing. (Carlos Barria / Courtesy Reuters)

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."

Although there is no independent polling to support Chang's sentiment, talking to a dozen people over the last week exposes a common attitude. "I actually paid close attention to their catchphrases," said Zhang Yueming, the head of a state-owned publishing house in Beijing, speaking about outgoing party leader Hu Jinato's report issued at the opening day of the congress. Hu mentioned "something called 'five in one,'" Zhang explained, referring to one of the party's new slogans that highlights the party's priorities in national development for the next five years, namely, building the economy, building the political system, building culture, building the society, and building ecological soundness into the system. "But they've been saying that for years," Zhang said. "It's all empty talk."

Where slogans do make a clear point, it is a depressing one. Take, for example, a line in Hu's opening speech at the congress: "We cannot take the old road of seclusion and stagnation, nor can we pick the wicked way of changing our banner." Of course, Hu said the same thing in 2008, but people believe that the weight is different this time. Reading between the lines, they see it as an indication that the Chinese Communist Party will not be reforming anytime soon, believing that "the wicked way of changing our banner" refers to much-desired democratic reform.

As many democratization theorists would expect, decades of economic growth have both delivered prosperity to millions of Chinese and increased their frustration with the state's still-strong hand. In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping adopted bold measures to liberalize the economy, promising growth and efficiency. But in recent years, the government has tightened its reins on the economy by re-expanding the role of state-owned companies, whose combined assets ballooned from 7.13 trillion yuan in 2002 to 28 trillion yuan in 2011 (one dollar is about 6.25 yuan). Many of these corporations are simply vehicles for politicians to accumulate great fortunes for themselves and their relatives. Recent investigative reporting from The New York Times and Bloomberg, for example, revealed just how much Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, and Xi Jinping, the incoming Chinese president, have amassed.

It is not surprising that many Chinese believe that their leaders are keener on enriching themselves than governing. This is a dangerous current building under apparent political apathy. It could be unleashed at any time. Already, earlier this year, the case of Bo Xilai, a previous contender for the Chinese Communist Party's top office, was exposed for his involvement in corruption and a murder, causing a public uproar that sent censors scrambling.

In other words, a party that boasts its proletariat roots and pledges to "serve the people" is quickly losing credibility among the masses, a crisis that, as Hu warned at the congress, could "cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state." Although the new leadership has reiterated that addressing corruption is high on its agenda, the public is hesitant to buy the rhetoric. Prior to the congress, rumors of the upcoming leaders' assets and foreign connections circulated on the Internet and in private conversations. Their vested interest in the system, many believe, may block any significant momentum for reform.

"We hope [the system] can bring concrete benefit to us common citizens, too," said a 40-year-old Beijing employee of a foreign aviation company. Aviation is so tightly regulated that few outside players can compete. He said he has been scouring magazines and the Internet since the beginning of the party congress for signs of a solid reform agenda but has yet to find any. "I don't think the policies made [in the 18th Congress] will have a big impact in my business," he said. "If there will be change, it will definitely have to come very slowly."

Another common worry is the education system. Chang, for example, has enrolled her daughter in one of the city's elite junior high schools, but she frets over its cutthroat competition and ideologically driven curriculum. It serves the interest of the regime -- producing more obedient cadres and like-minded future officials. Chang believes that reforming the schools would be like "pulling a hair that will affect the whole body," to use a Chinese idiom. If the regime promoted a more open-minded education system -- one that taught critical thinking, for example -- the whole regime could crumble. And it does not help that the regime's guardians circumvent China's schools en masse by sending their children abroad: At least eight of the nine members of the outgoing Politburo Standing Committee have a child with extensive overseas experience. Xi's daughter is an undergraduate at Harvard under a pseudonym. "It's a dead-end road," Chang said. So, like many other middle-class families, Chang has made the decision to enroll her daughter in a special program in a renowned Beijing high school that, instead of preparing students for the national college entrance examination, will get them ready for a college education abroad. "I can't battle the system," Chang said, "so this is what I'll have to do."

Finally, there is censorship: The gulf between the official portrayal of the party congress and the public perception is nowhere clearer than on the Chinese Internet, where discussions flow somewhat freely. On Sina microblog, official government updates are buried under users' messages, which range from amusement to weariness. One commentator from Guangdong Province, lishifengyunwang, compared the current party congress to previous ones and observed: "During the 16th and 17th party congresses, Southern Weekend and Window of the South were still offering excited readings," mentioning the names of two relatively liberal Chinese publications. "But it has no word for the 18th Congress. Looks like everyone's heart is tired."

Referring to Hu's speech, a microblog user from Beijing called diyiboluomi noted, "You want to walk neither the old road nor the wicked road, but can you tell me where the new and correct road lies?" He continued, "You've been bending over, with your butt facing the sky, for so many decades to feel the stone," referring to the Chinese idiom "crossing the river by feeling the stones," which the government often uses to describe its slow, experimental approach to reform. "But we really are clueless now. After decades, the stone is still hanging in our heart."

If the public mood of pessimism and frustration has reached the party officials, they have not shown it, except to   quietly launch quietly an official State Council microblog account. "[It] will be used to publish the country's major policies and guidelines in a timely and accurate manner," according to an announcement in Xinhua, the state's newswire service. It is meant to show the government's "willingness to engage with the public." Intrigued by the move, more than 400,000 microblog users have subscribed to the page. When new government policies are posted on the message board, readers try to pitch in their personal views, only to find out that the account holder has suspended the commenting function.

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