Letter from China: China’s Communists slowly losing credibility

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
Published: October 19, 2007
SHANGHAI: Each night this week the television news has opened with images from the biggest event on China’s political calendar, the once-every-five-years congress of the Communist Party.
In a country where political cartoonists are unheard of, and a sense of humor, never mind satire, about politics doesn’t get much of an airing, it was fitting that the camera shots were mostly solemn: long slow pans over audiences seated in a giant hall draped in red, bent over their desks, taking careful notes or studiously reading the interminable texts.
It is not hard to feel sympathy for the 2,213 congress delegates.
China’s political discourse remains some of the most stultifying you’ll find anywhere, a fact made all the more strange for the startling dynamism on display almost everywhere else one looks in this country.
Much of the dutiful study this week has been of the opening speech by the country’s leader, Hu Jintao, a man with the inscrutability of a sphinx and a penchant – this may be by now a requirement for the job – for stuffy slogans that are difficult to parse.
Building a “harmonious society” through something called “scientific development” is Hu’s trademark idea, and in a long, omnibus speech he touched on so many familiar problems and goals that retaining any one thought as the centerpiece or overriding priority became a task worthy of hard study.
There is something else about congresses like these that makes the exercise seem unsettling and almost incongruous. Talk of the real work at hand – choosing the country’s next generation of leaders – is scrupulously managed, to the point of suppressing the topic altogether.
Chinese party congresses live up to the maxim that important things are decided in small meetings, and trivial things decided in large ones.
Accordingly, who will follow Hu in five years is being hashed out in the smokiest of political back rooms, reducing the delegates who pore over the reports before the cameras, and who will eventually vote to ratify the new leadership lineup, to the role of movie set extras.
Just to make sure that none of the rank and file get the wrong idea, and begin thinking they are actually meant to have a say, it has been reported that the delegates have been warned to follow instructions and to vote as told when the big moment comes.
This week, the Chinese magazine Caijing summed up this reality by citing comments by Deng Xiaoping, the leader in the 1980s, who said that “economic reform will not work if political reform is not keeping pace.”
The magazine then boldly asserted what many citizens, particularly in the booming cities of the east, may think as they watch political theater that owes more to the Stalinist past than it does to the mores of a self-confident and resurgent country: “At the center of political reform is democratization. Just as economic reform cannot divert from the road toward market reform, political reform cannot divert from democratization.”
Indeed, China’s leaders find themselves at an interesting moment, perhaps even a fulcrum point; their staid governing style, their reluctance to accept more openness and stronger checks on their powers and privileges, and most of all, their unwillingness to treat the public in mature rather than old-fashioned, deeply patronizing ways risks placing them increasingly out of synch with the fast evolving world of the big, rich cities.
No one is expecting an upheaval, certainly not now. What may be in store, however, is a steady erosion of legitimacy, which does not augur well for the medium and longer term.
This is what can happen, though, to authoritarian systems that constantly invoke the need for reform and never muster the courage to actually undertake it, and likewise to those who constantly promise to tackle corruption, while never actually moving beyond fingering scapegoats.
The signs of this slow fade in credibility could be heard in the voices of many Shanghai residents who were asked in sidewalk interviews this week what they make of the ongoing political show and how they see the future.
There was lots of grumbling about the high cost of food and housing, which was to be expected, but skepticism and outright disaffection loomed large, too.
A 50-year-old engineer who gave his name as David Yuan said he had paid “zero” attention to the congress, because he felt politics were beyond people’s control.
“Our lives are like bits of leaves blowing in the wind,” he said. “We can only hope to land in a good place.”
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