Short Cuts

John Lanchester

It is not true that the exchange of goods at the end of the Cold War was entirely one-sided. Granted, the Soviet bloc got gangster capitalism, rampant inequality and freeish elections; but we got some things too. Prominent among them has been the utterly choreographed, wholly undemocratic party congress. These were once a derided feature of Communist states. Now, though, our party conferences feature displays of undissenting loyalty and orgies of leader-praise which would have brought a debutante’s blush to the cheeks of Enver Hoxha.

Still, it’s hard to beat the Chinese Communist Party when it comes to putting on this particular kind of show. The 17th Party Congress attracted pretty dismal coverage in the UK broadcast media – a Newsnight report dwelt on such themes as inscrutability and the lack of visible public dissent. (Next week: Africans, and their natural sense of rhythm.) To get a more informed view on China, one has to turn to the blogosphere, and in particular to the kinds of website mentioned in danwei.org, a China news-aggregating site which has recently awarded its annual prizes, wittily titled ‘Model Workers – English Division’. Danwei gives a range of sources, news and opinions on China that no mainstream news organisation can match.

Danwei gave an award to the China Media Project (based at the University of Hong Kong), which had an analysis of Hu Jintao’s big speech to the congress. Since China may well be approaching a moment of economic, environmental and political crisis, this has a claim to being the most important political speech anywhere in the world this year. The trouble is that these speeches are in code. Also, since Mao, China’s leaders have tended to adopt a technocratic, deliberately anti-charismatic public manner. Hu takes that about as far as it can go; he makes Jiang Zemin look like Iggy Pop. To decode the speech, therefore, one must count it. This the China Media Project has done:

And the results are in! ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ logged the most number of uses, appearing 52 times in Hu Jintao’s political report to the 17th National Congress. A distant second, ‘scientific development’ racked up 38 appearances. Used a total of 34 times, ‘opening and reform’ finished third, just edging out ‘harmony’ at 33.

‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’, a phrase patented by Deng, which in practice means ‘capitalism with Party control’, is the official policy of China, and the surge in mentions – up from 30 at the 16th Party Congress – is a strong, perhaps even a protesting-too-much, signal of continuity. ‘Harmonisation’, a new word, is more interesting. According to the excellent political blog Blood and Treasure, ‘the near tie between opening & reform and harmony means that Hu regards the maintenance of social stability as a discrete policy objective, rather than an inherent consequence of economic growth, as was the general line during the Jiang years.’ In other words Jiang thought growth would magically resolve questions of rising inequality, but Hu disagrees. This is a huge, huge deal, since the tensions in China between the urban rich and the rural poor, combined with rampant corruption ensuing on explosive growth, are causing terrible stresses, as the (banned) book Will the Boat Sink the Water: The Life of China’s Peasants by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao (PublicAffairs, £9.99) makes clear. Blood and Treasure makes a point of tracking ‘mass group incidents’. These are under-reported mini-rebellions in which pissed-off villagers turn on the Party-approved local thugs who are running rackets and appropriations.

The ‘mass group incidents’ are a clue that the condition of China – its rapidly growing inequality, and the gap between the ukase-issuing centre and the decentralised, gangster-ridden periphery – is starting to look the way it did before the Communists came to power. This story gets reported in the West only when it grows lurid, as it did recently when Pang Jiayu, a party bigshot in Shaanxi, got into a spot of bother. He had paid off his 11 mistresses with things like utility contracts – nothing says ‘I love you’ like a rigged bid on a water diversion project – but went too far when he then had some of their husbands sentenced to death on corruption charges. I was trying to think which novel that was like – Dead Souls? Then it hit me that what it is actually like is the village-level agitprop about wicked landowners that the Communists directed at the Nationalists.

The meaning of Hu’s second most numerous phrase, ‘scientific development’, isn’t clear. It is Hu’s personal tag, his marker, so it seems likely to be something he wouldn’t mind being seen as his legacy. I have no evidence for thinking this, but I wonder if it might be to do with the environment. China is beginning to take the issue of the environment very seriously, and sees it as one of environmental protection, not just a matter of quality of life. (Consider the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: no prize for working out which interest groups get to run that.) China is more at risk from global warming than any other country and suffered severe flooding this summer. But perhaps, as Blood and Treasure has suggested, the Chinese Communist Party is well equipped philosophically to deal with global warming. Western environmentalism is moral, and doesn’t bother to conceal its belief that consumerism is inherently damaging and wrong. That distracts some people from the science. By framing global warming as a technical problem, an undesirable side-effect of processes which are in themselves benign – progress and consumption and our rational exploitation of our planet’s resources – it is possible that the CCP will approach global warming in a way that makes people more willing to pay the necessary price to address it.

Let’s hope so, because on that subject, the news is dire. Over the summer, more Arctic ice melted than ever before: ice cover hit a new low of 1.6 million square miles, trumping the previous nadir of 2.05 million, set in 2005. The once-mythical Northwest Passage briefly opened up, as did the northern sea route over Russia. This is a feedback effect. Since ice reflects heat and water absorbs it, this change both denotes and accelerates global warming. In the autumn, a team at UEA discovered that the ocean seems to be absorbing less CO2 than previously – as much as 50 per cent less than in the mid-1990s. Some scientists had predicted that increasing CO2 output might stress the ocean, and cause it to lose some of its power to absorb CO2; and that is what, on the evidence of this research, is already happening. Both these sets of data could possibly be part of natural cycles that are not understood. If they aren’t, they are as bad as news gets.