8 Nov 2012

Official harmony – but ordinary Chinese are pushed to the side

Driving into Beijing from the airport yesterday, I noticed dozens of elderly people in red armbands on the pavements. They’re “volunteers” who are paid a few kuai (pennies) to make sure there’s no trouble in their neighbourhood during the 18th party congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

They patrol their patch, checking up on their neighbours and reporting to the local party bigwigs anyone they suspect might disturb this important meeting.

Recently published and much mocked rules indicate what might constitute a disturbance – letting your pigeons out of their coop, flying balloons or toy aircraft, carrying pingpong balls (no, I don’t understand the last one either). Taxi drivers are grumbling because they’ve been forced to tear off the handles in the back of cabs, in case dissidents leap out and scatter anti-government leaflets. The party, it seems, is very scared of the people it claims to represent.

The CPC was founded in July 1921 when 53 men met in secret, first in a private house in Shanghai and then on a boat on Lake Nanhu. It was a time of turbulence and conflict in China. They resolved, “to overthrow the bourgeoisie by means of the revolutionary army of the proletariat, to rebuild the country by the laboring classes and to work for the ultimate elimination of class distinction; to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat in order to attain the objective of class struggle.”

How quaint those words sound in today’s capitalist/communist China, where the party leadership live luxurious lifestyles far beyond “bourgeois”, and where entrepreneurs join the party to make the right contacts and get ahead. The sons and daughters of the elite go to Harvard and Yale, and their families have garnered huge fortunes over the last decade.

The congress, which happens once every five years, is supposedly a decision-making body which sets policy and appoints the party leadership. Most important is the nine-member standing committee, the seniormost people in the party, and the 25-member politburo.

In reality, the names have been decided in advance by politicking and power plays within the elite. Every 10 years, the congress chooses a new secretary-general who will become president of China, and premier of the state council, who will become head of government or prime minister.

During this congress, President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will make way for two new leaders: Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. This year, such has been the strife within the top echelon, they have managed to agree only seven members on the new standing committee

All sorts of measures, constititional changes and new policies will be aired over the next week. They will talk about issues – including the gap between rich and poor, and corruption – but there will be little or no disagreement among the 2,325 delegates who have arrived in Beijing from all over China.

The watchword is “harmony”. There will be much trumpeting of “elections” and “intra-party democracy”, but in truth this is a choreographed event to show the Chinese people and the world that the party is in full control and cannot be challenged.

What about the proletariat? Or at least, the laobaixing, the ordinary people of China? Today the difference between them and the party elite was obvious: Beijing was in gridlock because two out of three lanes were reserved for delegates. Ordinary Chinese were pushed to the side of the road.

In recent weeks there has been much grumbling about the congress on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Many posts are censored. One cynical observer remarked that the cost of security for the congress must be exorbitant. Maybe it would be cheaper to hold it in Ameirca, far from the Chinese people, the cynic suggested. Then the leadership could kill two birds with one stone and visit their children at the same time.

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