The view from the ground.

Party Congress Diary, Day 7

What to watch for as China picks its new leaders.

FENG LI/AFP/Getty Images
FENG LI/AFP/Getty Images
FENG LI/AFP/Getty Images

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 decision-making body.

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 writing.

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.”

Day Six

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.”


Day Five

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 cameras.

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.”



Day Four

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 entrance exams.

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 this year.

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.


Day Three

Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is 109 acres of mostly concrete slabs and stone monuments, not the most flammable of famous world architecture.

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 areas.

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 Tiananmen.


Day Two

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 own.

What other 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 new pope.

Droves of 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.

As reporters 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:

On political 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 the flesh.

For congress 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.)

The center-stage 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.

Looking somewhat 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 this transition.

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.

Day 1:

There’s 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.

Trying 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.

“I’m 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.

Wen’s 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.

As 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.

The 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 paint dry.


At 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.

It’s 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.”


“Western 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.”

The 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.”

Rampant 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.”

While 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.”

Kathleen E. McLaughlin is an award-winning journalist based in Butte, Montana, after many years in China. Twitter: @kemc

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