Electing leaders? China shows how it’s done – boringly

Emotionally drained by the exceedingly long and tedious US election cycle, which culminated in Tuesday’s elections that saw Barack Obama returned to power? Feel like the political junkie in you could do with a double dose of Valium to calm your frayed nerves – and induce you to tune out all that political sloganeering in your head?

Welcome to China’s alternative model for superpowers to elect their leaders, now on public display at the 18th congress of the Communist Party, which began on Thursday. Where the identity of the two top leaders who will be formally anointed in a week—Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang—has been known for some years now, and culminating in a process that is, as this commentator notes, about as exciting as watching paint dry.

 Electing leaders? China shows how it’s done – boringly

Chinese President Hu Jintao (L) and former president Jiang Zemin (C) attend the opening session of the18th Communist Party Congress held at the Great Hall of the People on 8 November 2012 in Beijing. Getty Images

China’s leadership change, which has been breathlessly billed as a "once-in-a-decade transition", is of course not entirely without substance. But in its form, it couldn’t be more different from the high-decibel, glitzy, participatory, made-for-television drama that makes for the US presidential election cycle.

Everything about the China party congress and the election of the leaders next Thursday has been choreographed to perfection. According to the law, as noted Chinawatcher Willy Lam says, the 25 members of the ruling Politburo, and the more elite group of China’s supreme ruling council, the Politburo Standing Committee, will be selected from among the Central Committee members.

But in fact, Lam says, when the deputies meet, much of their work will have already been done for them. "They will likely be handed an all-but-final list of candidates for the 18th Central Committee, with a 'margin of elimination' of 15 percent. In other words, all the delegates need do is throw out 15 percent of the least popular candidates."

In a culture that places a premium on orderliness, even at the risk of being downright boring, speeches by top leaders are required to be so anodyne as not to say anything of substance for fear of rocking the party boat.

For maximum effect, they must also be narrated in the same lifeless tone that our own Prime Minister Manmohan Singh unfailingly brings to his public orations, such as they are.

Which is why, anyone looking for anything more than inane generalities in outgoing party general secretary and President Hu Jintao’s speech to mark the opening of the party congress on Thursday would have been profoundly disappointed. As Kerry Brown, Professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney, observes, political speeches in the West are often about springing a few policy surprises, since politicians need to grab the headlines. But in China, the last thing that Hu would want to do in his speech at the party congress would be to startle anyone in the audience.

"And in this, he did not let anyone down" with his speech on Thursday, notes Brown.

Hu was delivering a work report encapsulating the Communist Party’s achievements over the past decade, and although the outgoing leadership team of Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao can justifiably claim to have steered China's economy and society through a particularly challenging period, they have left much work undone in the area of economic and political reforms.

In his speech, Hu also took proforma note of "reform of the political structure" as one of the areas where the party had to make active efforts, but then, this is a formulation he has been mouthing for some years now.

That underlines the reality that confronts China today: that for all the talk of China supplanting itself as an economic superpower, it is held back by a political system that has exhausted the goodwill it generated over three decades by delivering supernormal growth – and raising hundreds of millions out of poverty.

Today, the Communist Party is so paranoid that just ahead of the party congress, it mobilised 1.4 million "volunteers" to, as Lam notes, "perform the function of vigilantes-cum-informers, reporting to the authorities potentially threatening characters". More bizarrely, Chinese authorities have forbidden supermarkets from selling knives during the duration of the congress, told Beijing residents not to fly carrier pigeons or play with remote-controlled toy airplanes, and instituted a state of emergency equivalent to martial law in the area where many of the congress delegates are staying.

The manufactured consent of the Chinese political system has served the country and its populace well for three decades now. But the limits of the political system are being shown up in the iron hand that China’s leaders are increasingly being forced to deploy against their own people.

Updated Date: Nov 08, 2012 17:36:54 IST



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