Code Red: China’s Leadership Transition Begins Amid Pomp and Security

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Guang Niu / Getty Images

Chinese leaders (rear) and delegates attend the opening session of the 18th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 8, 2012

And so it has begun. On the morning of Nov. 8, just a day (because of the time difference) after U.S. voters re-elected President Barack Obama, China launched its once-a-decade leadership transition. President Hu Jintao is expected to make way for Vice President Xi Jinping, the 59-year-old bureaucrat son of a Communist Party elder. More than 2,000 delegates, supposedly representing 82.6 million party members, gathered in the crimson-carpeted Great Hall of the People on Thursday to begin the weeklong process of designating the new Politburo Standing Committee. This powerful conclave will soon rule China, with Xi helming the seven (or possibly nine) committee members as the new General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

At the confab’s opening ceremony, delegates were adorned with hammer-and-sickle identity cards. Hu’s 100-minute-long keynote report, delivered in front of a massive golden hammer and sickle mounted on the wall, was heavy with communist cant, urging Chinese citizens and party members to “firmly march on the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics and strive to complete the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects.”

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Just in case the message wasn’t clear — there were, after all, delegates who took the outgoing General Secretary’s speech as an opportunity to snooze — a slogan that wrapped around part of the room reminded delegates of the contributions of previous communist chiefs: “Hold high the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, use [former leader] Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Three Represents [theory of former party chief Jiang Zemin] and the scientific development outlook [of current leader Hu] as our guidelines, advance on the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics without hesitation, struggle for the building of a well-off society in an all-round way!”

But if the language was old-school, the challenges confronting China’s so-called fifth generation of leaders are remarkably modern. After decades of turbocharged economic growth courtesy of market reforms introduced by former leader Deng, China can no longer count on ever buoyant growth rates to satisfy its people. Official graft is rife, a yawning income gap alarming. Each day, dozens of small-scale protests proliferate in a country hypersensitive to expressions of dissent. The demonstrations range from NIMBY movements by the urban middle class and rural disgust with farmland improperly appropriated by local officials to explosive anger from ethnic minorities who feel marginalized by government policies.

During their decade in power, Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao have presided over a period in which China’s economic expansion led it to assume the title of the world’s second largest economy. Yet the political liberalizations some people hoped for have not materialized. Rule of law remains a dream in China. Dissidents and other undesirables were hustled out of Beijing for the 18th Communist Party Congress or otherwise kept confined from public view — a show of the Chinese state’s octopus-like grasp on society. The police presence in Beijing is overwhelming. Hu’s opening-ceremony speech gave little indication of real political openness in the future. Yes, he did say that “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.” But Hu’s definition of democracy is assuredly different from that of many political theorists.

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And yet for all the restrictions, social media and other communication advances have given normal Chinese a channel, however controlled, to express themselves in a way they could not have done when Hu first came to power. In a country where politics has been divorced from the populace at large, ordinary Chinese now have a voice online. They are using this newfound power to plot the downfall of corrupt local politicians and raise a ruckus about polluting local factories. They do so while constantly dodging online censors who are so paranoid, they are now thwarting searches for 86-year-old former leader Jiang’s name. Sites like Facebook and Twitter are banned, and in the lead-up to the party congress, certain international news websites were blocked and Internet speed slowed to the pace of a somnolent tortoise for some users.

China’s future leaders face a daunting task of restructuring an economy overdependent on state enterprise and unifying a country through political reform or some sort of ideology that will enable the Communist Party to stay relevant in its seventh decade in power. Two days before the party congress began, the party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, published an article outlining the challenges for the only political party organization to rule China since 1949:

“At the 18th national congress, the Party needs to figure out how it will draw on past invaluable experience, open up a path of innovation, meet the people’s needs, solve problems concerning the people’s vital interests, and introduce more suitable policies at the macro and micro levels for improving the people’s living standards.

China is faced with new challenges in handling relations with big countries, developing countries and its neighbors. In the era of economic globalization, China must map out a new strategy to continue the road of peaceful development, meanwhile avoiding risks and seizing opportunities. Now, China occupies such an important status in the world that a slight change will impact the entire world.”

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Putting on a show of change, the party congress press center has organized “collective interviews” for the foreign media’s delectation. The first, set to take place on Nov. 9, will focus on the “theoretical innovations” of the Chinese Communist Party and will feature an academic at the leading government think tank and a top official from the Central Party School, which trains top communist cadres. A second press session a day later will focus on how the party can “implement innovation strategies to accelerate transformation and development.”

The titles of these meetings sound as baffling as they are stilted. But there’s no question that China’s leaders understand the difficulties of steering a populous, diverse, increasingly outspoken nation — especially in the wake of divisive political scandals earlier this year that eroded public confidence in the government. As Hu spoke on Thursday, state television took time out of its live broadcast to focus on some of the backroom power brokers who will help steer the course of the next decade, including Hu’s predecessor (and political rival) Jiang, who despite rumors of ill health has appeared in public several times in recent days and was shown on Thursday sporting a dapper three-piece suit and hair of a chestnut hue.

Part of the vast Great Hall of the People has been reserved for military men in green and blue, whose power may increase at a time when China is more aggressively pursuing what it deems its national interests in territorial spats with Asian neighbors. Sprinkled throughout the hall were also shocks of color from women in bright clothes and representatives of China’s 55 recognized ethnic groups in traditional dress, including a woman wearing an oversize conical hat with a shocking-pink fur trim and another in a massive beaded denim headdress. A man in a Muslim prayer cap took in Hu’s speech with closed eyes, while a delegate in Buddhist monk’s robes flipped through a paper copy of Hu’s report.

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For all of China’s efforts to promote the idea of national harmony, its borderlands have on occasion been convulsed with ferment during Hu’s decade in power. Protests have broken out in Tibet, the northwestern Muslim region of Xinjiang and in Mongolian-populated parts of northern China. On Nov. 7, a record five Tibetans self-immolated to protest Chinese rule and repression, bringing the number of such fiery protests to close to 70. The five Tibetans who carried out Wednesday’s desperate displays included one 15-year-old and two 16-year-old monks, plus a young mother, according to Tibetan exile groups.

Other challenges await beyond these ethnic issues, encompassing serious economic and political dilemmas. Even the official People’s Daily, which has an ability to make even the direst news seem anodyne or even upbeat, had this to say: “People are looking forward to the convening of the 18th National Congress of the CPC because it may mean the new beginning of a great revolution to China and even the world.” Those are rousing words hinting at change. But then again, here’s Hu from his exhaustive work report, as he tacked away from any speculation that China might pursue Western-style political reform: “We do not go down the road rigidly and without change, but we do not go down another road.” But then, every motorist in Beijing knows that it’s often better to make a detour, even a major one, than to endlessly suffer the capital’s infamous gridlock. As it reaches the milestone of a new leadership, just which way should a country aiming for superpower status go?