Congress Close, But Details Far From Clear

TIME’s Hannah Beech checks in from the site of the 18th Party Congress in Beijing, where organizers have given each foreign journalist a baseball cap and a backpack made to carry an umbrella, water bottle and even an ice ax, but have not given them any clues about what will actually transpire when the curtain is raised at the Great Hall of the People on Thursday:

It’s remarkable that so little is known about what will actually happen during the upcoming conclave. A Service Guide for Journalists notes helpfully that Western-style snacks will be served in the Press Center but there is no real detail about actual events. As of Monday afternoon, an online guide to the upcoming Party Congress had listed only two events directly related to the Communist gathering: a cocktail party for journalists on Nov. 6 and a press conference the day after. Like most press conferences in China, it’s certain Wednesday’s event will be a scripted one in which random journalists won’t be allowed to fling questions at the 18th Party Congress’ spokesperson.

Even the date when the Congress will end is not clear, although many people suspect it will be Nov. 15. “We have no detailed information of the schedule of the 18th Party Congress,” Yue Xiaosong, an official at the 18th Party Congress Press Center, told TIME on Monday. “I don’t know the date when the Congress will finish.” Yue’s only suggestion to TIME was that we should look at previous Party Congress schedules as a general guideline. But he quickly cautioned that we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from the past. “It will depend on how well the 18th Party Congress goes,” he said, when pressed on just when the confab will end. No details were provided on what he meant by the meeting going “well.” A TIME colleague suggests the wording on the cap in the press swag bag should be changed to: “Somebody I know went to the 18th Party Congress, and all I got was this stupid hat.”

Despite the heightened restrictions in Beijing, The South China Morning Post’s Keith Zhai notes that ordinary mainlanders are “gripped by an overwhelming sense of apathy” and feel little connection to politics. The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore reports that in contrast with American voters, the Chinese public “remains utterly cut off from the political process,” and those that do care are left to sift through official speeches and state media coverage for hints of what will happen and who will comprise the Politburo Standing Committee:

Indeed, while we know that the leadership change will happen at the 18th Party Congress, which opens on Thursday, we do not know exactly when the new leaders will be unveiled or when the congress will end. Those in China cannot even search for the phrase “18th party congress” on the internet: it has been removed by the censors.

All we can be sure of is that, at some point in the near future, a group of men – and they are all likely to be men – will walk on to a dais in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square. These will be the seven members of the politburo standing committee, the Chinese equivalent of the Cabinet, selected (by an essentially mysterious process) from among the 25 politburo members originally elected by the party’s 300-strong central committee.

The lack of any real information, however, hasn’t stopped the rumor mill from churning about last-minute horse trading at the top of the party. Sources have told Reuters that ten finalists are vying for seven seats on the Standing Committee, and The New York Times reports that China’s “beleaguered liberals” have their fingers crossed in hope that the reform-minded Guangdong party chief Wang Yang is one of them. Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution provides more details on the “tussle” taking place between the “populist” and “princeling” factions, and what it might mean for regime stability going forward.

Peter Ford of the Christian Science Monitor, meanwhile, spoke to several China analysts who think that closed-door power-broking may give way to a succession protocol based more on consensus under future leadership transitions. Reuters echoed that sentiment in a Tuesday article as well, and went even further, quoting sources who hinted that the Communist Party may not wait until the next generation to adopt a more democratic process for choosing its leadership:

Under their proposal, there would be up to 20 percent more candidates than seats in the new Politburo in an election to be held next week, the sources said. It was unclear if competitive voting would also be extended to the Standing Committee.

“Hu wants expanding intra-party democracy to be one of his legacies,” one source said, requesting anonymity to avoid repercussions for discussing secretive elite politics.

“It would also be good for Xi’s image,” the source added.

Orville Schell writes that the incoming generation of Chinese leaders will not have the rubber stamp of legitimacy that Deng Xiaoping bestowed on Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, nor the mandate typically provided by democratic elections. Instead, he says China “finds itself floating terrifyingly in a gravity-less political world” that continues to spin. From the Asia Society’s China File:

The problem is compounded by the fact that, having relieved through its own reform process of the kind of Big Leader rule which allowed megalomaniacal visions to so often wreak havoc on the country—paradoxically just as the West tirelessly challenged it to—China now finds itself without precisely that kind of bold decision-making power at the top that characterized Deng Xiaoping’s quite extraordinary tenure (June 1989 not withstanding) and enabled him to be such a bold reformer.

With no entitled big leader, no confirmed political system capable of conferring legitimacy on new leaders, and no set plan for the future, China nonetheless still finds itself forced somehow to choose a new leadership team. This has left “the people,” who have no real role to play in this process, feeling quite shut out and nervous about what the future holds for them.

Although it is impossible to know what is actually going inside the black box where China’s leaders wrangle over their future, people hear that the process has been intense, even acrimonious. And, since they do not even know what each leader or faction actually stands for, a climate of uncertainty and anxiety has been increasing. Such feelings are hardly surprising, for here in China everything is veiled, hidden, and opaque. And yet, this whole amazingly dynamic proposition continues to hurtle down the tracks, just as I am doing now, even as everyone knows that somewhere ahead, the tracks end. Nobody, especially the present leadership, seems to quite know how to resolve this crisis in confidence, how to pick those who will follow them and write the script for the next act that will set China’s future course.

The information vacuum also hasn’t stopped the Chinese press from saturating the newspapers and airwaves with stories about the congress. Danwei’s Barry van Wyk surveyed the front pages on Monday and found predictable yet “utterly uniform” coverage, though some papers broke ranks to report on Bo Xilai’s expulsion from the CCP and other news. Elsewhere, David Bandurski of The China Media Project has made “fruitless” searches for “18th Party Congress” within the realms of Chinese social media. Today, he highlighted a post on Sina Weibo which speculated about the lineup of the congress and was deleted by censors.

Reform remains the key buzzword in the press as the opening of the congress draws closer, but McClatchy Newspapers’ Tom Lasseter spoke to several academics who suggested that the West should temper its expectations of major political changes. The biggest policy developments, they say, will likely come in the economic arena. Caixin has published a list of 18 recommended economic reforms that the incoming leadership should pursue, a list that includes SOE reforms, environmental protection and tax cuts among other more ambitious requests such as downsizing the government itself.

Finally, beneath the pomp and circumstance that is sure to blanket the congress, The Guardian’s Tania Branigan reminds readers that the Communist Party does have a bit of governing to do as well:

The Chinese leadership “knows the legitimacy of the party now depends on performance, in terms of delivering services and improvements in living standards”, said Steve Tsang, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Nottingham.

The result is what he calls “a consultative Leninist system … They want to know what people think so they can take away the causes of discontent and potential challenges to the party. That’s not the same as the accountability we would talk about and expect in Europe or North America; it’s more of a safety valve and has an element of [the Maoist injunction] ‘from the masses, to the masses’.”

See also a Reuters’ primer on the congress, which details the likely agenda and ponders potential new policy initiatives that the delegates may introduce, and previous CDT coverage of the 18th Party Congress.