15 Nov 2012

China’s leaders parade before the media

There was plenty of time to contemplate the massive chandelier in the room where we were waiting to see China’s leaders parade before us this morning. Not to mention the wood paneling and the fake Qing (or maybe Ming) painting – the standard decor of the inner sanctums of the Great Hall of the People.

The seven men in suits who finally walked across the stage like beauty queens (or, as cynical American friends said, like a perp walk) were 45 minutes late.

First surprise: “Ladies and gentlemen, friends, good morning. Sorry to have kept you waiting…” said the new general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping. It was, he said, “a great pleasure to meet friends from the press,” and he thanked us for our “dedication and hard work” in covering the 18th Party Congress.

It was a bit of a shock. Outgoing President Hu Jintao, who walked like a robot and talked like a speak-your-weight machine, never apologised to the media for anything let alone thanked us.

Xi, who waved and smiled, clearly wanted to set a new tone. It doesn’t mean that anything important is going to change, but it does signify that he will project a different persona from the stiff and formal Hu. He acknowledged that the party is “out of touch with the people”, highlighting corruption and “undue emphasis on formalities and bureaucracy.”

There are seven members of the new standing committee instead of the normal nine, apparently to streamline decision-making.

I found myself checking the ties – one blue, the rest red, two with stripes. Hair – all dyed black despite being in their 60s. Glasses. Identikit suits.

Zhang Dejiang trained as an economist in North Korea (it’s OK – he’s not in charge of the economy). Until now Liu Yunshan was in charge of propaganda and censorship – maybe he was the one who decided to put an internet block on the phrase “18th Party Congress” thus ensuring that the Chinese people, whom the party is meant to represent, couldn’t find out about it.

Xi Jinping’s name was also blocked, presumably so people couldn’t read or say anything untoward about him. (It’s been unblocked now he’s taken office.) The Chinese system the complete reverse of ours. These days we seem to know the tiniest details about our politicians, but in China, people know virtually nothing about their leaders, nor the process by which they assume power.

As I walked out of the Great Hall of the People, I wondered what would happen in ten years’ time when the next leadership change is due to take place.  Will the Communist Party elite still horse-trade amongst themselves behind the high walls of Zhongnanhai, where the Emperors dwelt before them? Or will Chinese people start to demand a say?

From his vantage point over the gate into the Forbidden City, Mao Tse-Tung stared down over an almost empty Tiananmen Square. China’s current leaders have none of his charisma or ruthlessness. Nor do they share his ideology. Their’s is just a simple determination to stay in power.

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