from Asia Unbound

The 18th Party Congress: A Setback for President Hu?

November 05, 2012

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Politics and Government

Two days after the U.S. presidential election, 2270 delegates will gather in Beijing for the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Congress. The meeting will not only select a new generation of leaders but will also endorse the Party’s new political agenda. After being hit by a slew of scandals, the Communist Party is doing all it can to make sure all “unstable elements” are nipped in the bud. Security is tight not just in Beijing but also in other parts of China.  I heard stories of the police stopping cars in a southern province to search for knives. When one of the drivers dared to ask why, he was simply told “shiba da” (18th Party Congress). The New York Times is still being blocked for publishing the Wen Jiabao story. Searching for information on any of the Chinese leaders (and their wives) from Google Hong Kong (the only functioning Google site on the mainland) would only lead to a result stating, “Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage.” In addition, short messages sent via cell phones in China are being automatically blocked if it contains any names of the Chinese leaders.

To most Chinese who are just scraping by, the power jockeying at the top is just too far away for them to pay much attention. A taxi driver in Beijing (who was also a farmer from a Beijing suburb) told me that he did not care about the Party Congress, but he affirmed that life today was much better than a decade ago. When the conversation touched upon the issue of corruption, he gave a positive spin: “Corruption is bad, but at least we benefit from those corrupt officials. It is better to have corrupt officials doing good things for common people than to have clean officials who get nothing done.”

Compared to the ordinary Chinese, intellectuals, professionals, and government officials care about the Party Congress – they are generally more informed about the Congress. At the banquet table these officials and intellectuals were open in discussing candidates for the new Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) and patron client ties in China’s officialdom. An updated list of PBSC members is circulating on the eve of the political meeting. To my surprise, many different people talked about the same list. From the list it is clear that President Hu has suffered a huge political setback and former President Jiang Zemin has emerged as a clear winner in the game of power redistribution. Reform minded leaders such as Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang are not included in this list. All of this ultimately might not bode well for the prospect of political reform in China.