BEIJING – A popular joke making the rounds in Beijing touts the superiority of China’s political system to that of the United States.
After all, while the election between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney went down to the wire, the Chinese have known for years the outcome of the 18th Communist Party Congress that opens Thursday in Beijing.
Vice President Xi Jinping has been groomed since the last congress in 2007 to replace President Hu Jintao (first as secretary general of the Communist Party) and Li Keqiang as premier, to replace Wen Jiabao.
If all goes according to protocol – and the Chinese government has put the country under virtual lock-down to ensure no deviance from the script – Hu Jintao will open the session at Tiananmen Square’s Great Hall of the People with a sleep-inducing speech replete with Communist jargon. The last time, he droned on for 2 1/2 hours.
Then, roughly a week later, Xi, Li and other members of the new senior leadership team – the Politburo Standing Committee – will march onstage, according to rank, in matching dark suits and nearly indistinguishable haircuts. They will applaud themselves for the successful conclusion of the event – but they are not expected to lay out a fresh agenda.
“It is all empty speech,” said Li Datong, a former editor from the China Youth Daily. To the extent there is any suspense, it is whether the standing committee will remain at nine members or be reduced to seven to streamline decision making.
Yet beneath the placid surface, political intrigue is roiling like no time in recent Chinese history. This year saw the downfall of Bo Xilai, a telegenic Maoist whose wife was recently convicted of poisoning to death an English businessman; and the forced resignation of Hu Jintao’s chief of staff, Ling Jihua, whose son was killed in a fiery Ferrari crash.
The cascading scandals have served to strengthen and weaken various contenders for the Politburo Standing Committee.
The Party Congress brings together 2,270 delegates from across China – from senior leaders like Xi and Hu to a teacher from Tibet, an airport information-desk clerk, a 97-year-old former mayor of Beijing, and a 22-year-old Olympic swimmer. Delegates represent different blocs within the Communist Party, such as provinces, the military and state-owned enterprises. All must be party members with “a firm political stand, virtue, fine working style and excellent achievements,” as the New China news agency put it.
Though they will attend speeches and cast ballots, their role is as window dressing, said Kerry Brown, director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney.
“These people are there as physical bodies, to hold a space, to show that a meeting has been held,” he said.
Indeed, in recent decades, party congresses have had a Groundhog Day-like repetitiveness. A Hong Kong newspaper on Monday compared the communique from the plenary session preceding the congress this year and the one from the 2007 and found the wording virtually verbatim. (“The Political Bureau has comprehensively pushed forward the socialist, economic, political, cultural social and conservation culture construction and the great new Party-building project with various causes achieving remarkable results,” for example.)
The self-plagiarism is a point of pride for the Communist Party, which likes to congratulate itself on the decorum and stability of its system – especially next to the perceived messiness of Western democracies.