Most Beijing residents lead unenviable lives: smog all year around except for grand occasions such as the Olympics; infernal traffic for most of the day; few convenience stores, let alone 24/7s. Overhead walkways and underground passes seldom have escalator access; the traditional quadrangular courtyard (si he yuan) long ago disappeared with the lifestyle of the hutong, or small neighbourhood, and soaring house prices put most of the city out of reach to ordinary citizens. Whenever foreign dignitaries visit or the state hosts the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (NPC and CPPCC), main roads are blocked off and security checks go into overdrive.
Every five years the all-important meeting of the National Congress of the Communist Party convenes in the capital. The Chinese Communist Party has evolved a highly sophisticated bureaucracy in the 96 years of its existence. Every branch and organ of the state – the provincial governments, the university system, the official print outlets, the TV station – has two heads: one is the mayor, the principal, the chief editor or the director; the other is always the party secretary, who ranks higher than his or her counterpart and ensures that all party guidelines are observed. These days the best jobs are open only to party members. If a brilliant young person has any ambition, the first, indispensable step is to join the party, which now boasts ninety million members, or one in 15 adults.
Last month, 2280 party representatives were selected from across the country to attend the party’s 19th congress. They in turn elected (or rubber-stamped) 204 delegates to the CPC’s Central Committee, including 25 to the Politburo and, of those, seven to its Standing Committee, at the very heart of power in China. The party constitution states that the general secretary must be a member of the Standing Committee: there was always going to be a place for Xi Jinping, also head of state, commander in chief of the People’s Liberation Army, and leader of various high-level steering ‘groups’ of which we’ve begun to lose count, but no one had any idea who the others would be. There have never been so many rumours about the list of candidates for the Standing Committee. How many would be on it: five, seven or nine? What would it tell us about the status of cliques and factional interests within the party? Nobody knew, until a few days before the congress convened. In the end there were seven, and keen observers of the party’s inner workings take the view that the Standing Committee is now a fairly balanced group of senior apparatchiks, two of them (Xi and the prime minister, Le Keqiang) re-elected and five new faces. Perhaps it is, but national news coverage gave almost nothing away, beyond lengthy citations from Xi’s report, which took him three and a half hours to deliver to the congress. How the party selects its leaders, and what sense to make of the selection: these are mysteries.
Months before the congress, government news outlets across the country were told to follow an emergency response programme. For example, if a directive came through to an online news site to remove an item and it failed to do so within three minutes, the whole team was ordered to regroup and review its response systems. During the week of the congress many editors slept in their offices, cellphones on around the clock. The emergency plan also included a drastic contingency measure that would have seen the government take down the internet by unplugging the country’s major providers – China Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom – in the event of an unpleasant surprise. But it never came to that.
Many capable people have abandoned their careers in the media in recent years, because the news is not news any more. For a while now, regardless of earthquakes, hurricanes, US elections and Brexit, Xi has continued to top the news: day after day he is the first thing you get when you open a news app or an online outlet; in the print media he hogs the front page. People call him ‘the headline prince’. From time to time a tentative call from Li Keqiang’s office comes through to the editors at the party’s main newspaper: ‘Any chance you could get the PM onto page two tomorrow?’
Security in Beijing went into extreme mode for the congress. Last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou was an idyll by comparison: people working in state enterprises were given a few days off and told to stroll along the beautiful West Lake with their families, to give an impression of ‘harmony’ to the foreign guests. Beijing residents got no time off and waited hours for subway security checks. The subway company closed the comments section on its website to pre-empt complaints, and the dismal images of crowds massed outside stations were immediately removed from social media. Knives and scissors were taken off the shelves of stationery stores and supermarkets; couriers delivering cutlery were not allowed to enter Beijing.
Airbnb cancelled all bookings in the city, citing force majeure; hotels refused to check in Uighurs from Xinjiang in case they were dangerous separatists. Dissidents such as the late Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo’s wife were asked to take a trip to see the sites outside Beijing. When group chat managers at WeChat, our main messaging app, were told that they would have to take responsibility for members’ comments and opinions, several chatroom conveners quietly replaced their own names with the names of dead people. There was no bad news in China during the congress, even though the media normally report natural disasters, fires and other misfortunes; there was no light entertainment on TV; all online streaming was stood down; all piracy downloading sites were blocked: even the most apolitical people were forced to pay attention to the party congress, and it alone.
Ten days before the great event, the boyish singer (and actor) Lu Han announced on Weibo that he had a girlfriend. The traffic was enormous: Lu Han is a pop idol with 40 million Weibo followers and anything he posts online generates a surge of comments and likes. Stealing the party’s thunder was obviously not a good idea, but 40 million isn’t a negligible figure either: if he wanted to, he could start his own party tomorrow. The CPC understands the power and influence of young cult celebrities (referred to by netizens as ‘little fresh meat’), and one of its next projects may well be to tame them. Sing and dance for the party! (And if you don’t, your appearances in public will be rare.)
Managing domestic issues – social media, traditional media and security enforcement – is not the only measure of a successful party congress. Rocket man Kim Jong-un didn’t fire a missile all week, even though he’d done so during the G20 summit in Hangzhou, and again during the BRICS summit in September in Xiamen. Even the motor-mouth turncoat and real estate tycoon Guo Wengui, exiled in New York, held his peace for the entire week, having threatened on the eve of the congress to make seamy revelations about our leaders.
The 19th party congress comes after a five-year anti-corruption campaign, and presages the CPC’s centenary celebrations in 2021. Party tradition suggests that Xi should by now have appointed a successor, but there is no sign of one among the members of the Standing Committee. None of them is young enough: they will have retired or faded by the end of Xi’s second term in 2022. This in turn suggests that he wants to be at the front of the stage for the centenary as heir of the red legacy, and to be the one to lead the party across the symbolic threshold. The approaching centenary has also begun to sharpen the party’s focus on its history. Here the most pressing task is to shape the past as a coherent narrative, endow party rule – in the absence of democratic elections – with legitimacy and skirt round the minefield of historic wrongdoing. The art will be to assimilate the party’s past to Chinese civilisation itself, with thousands of years of history, and package them together as the rise of an indomitable superpower under Xi’s leadership. Responsibility for this narrative (i.e. mission impossible) has fallen to Wang Huning, the new propaganda boss. Wang also served Xi’s predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao: for Jiang he came up with the ‘Three Represents’ (I won’t go through them one by one); for Hu the ‘Scientific Development Concept’, and for Xi the ‘China Dream’. Before going to Beijing, he was a professor of international politics at Fudan in Shanghai. When Wang’s name appeared on the list for the top seven, i.e. the Standing Committee, last month, optimistic liberals were ecstatic: ‘Great! An intellectual in charge of propaganda and culture! A sign of a more congenial climate!’ ‘Wang’s a fan of cinema: good news for the movie industry!’ Then we were reminded that Goebbels had a doctorate in philosophy from Heidelberg. A long-term insider like Wang could easily crack down on metaphor, irony, allusion and historical reference – all the things seasoned writers use to get around censorship.
The anti-corruption campaign began by targeting the ‘big tigers’, those who monopolise China’s national resources for personal gain, and the ‘foxes’, who fled the country, taking their fortunes with them. Before long it extended to the ‘flies’ hovering around the tigers to colonise the remains of the kill. People welcomed the campaign, and I can see why: they were sick of the behaviour at the top, which was driving the whole system on favours and personal connections. Parents had to bribe teachers for their children to receive fair treatment at school; without the ‘tribute’, they would be vulnerable; patients often had to bribe surgeons before an operation. Not paying up wasn’t worth the risk. A cab driver told me that he was in despair because he had no guanxi: no pull in the ‘networks’, not even a network to speak of. He couldn’t get his daughter into the middle school for which she’d qualified, or save enough for her higher education, or further down the line stump up the dowry. People like this, in their hundreds of millions, aren’t bothered by the fact that the anti-corruption campaign has been a way for powerful interests to settle scores and eliminate rivals: they want a measure of social justice and a more tolerable life. Taoist wisdom teaches us that when life is good, people don’t need to know who their ruler is. As the campaign moved beyond the tigers, foxes and flies to more humble species still, the mood underwent a subtle change. University staff, for example, were quick to point out that when the Discipline Inspection Commission turned its attention to the pitiful income of teachers, and cancelled low-level employees’ mooncake coupons – mooncake is a delicacy eaten at the mid-autumn festival – things had gone too far.
The campaign was aimed at the public sector; it cleaned out a rotten bureaucracy and helped Xi to wrest power from China’s provincial barons and powerful figures in the military. It looks as though the next five years will see it extend to the private sector, and the first task will be to bring the tech giants to heel. One month before the party congress, Tencent, Baidu and Weibo were fined by the Cyberspace Administration for hosting pornography, fake news and banned content (for instance, comments which hadn’t been taken down in time). In July, the People’s Daily accused Tencent’s top mobile game Honour of Kings of dragging Chinese youth into a mass gaming addiction: the company’s share price fell by 4 per cent, or $14 billion, in a day. During the party congress, Tencent, a vast infotech agglomeration that offers everything from WeChat, entertainment, electronic payment facilities, and software, released its latest mobile game, Applaud for Xi Jinping. The game invites players to clap for Xi by tapping their phone screens as many times as they can in 19 seconds. Applaud for Xi Jinping was Tencent’s grovelling attempt to make amends for Honour of Kings, but the company is still in a difficult position. The government is now proposing to increase its stake in our big tech monsters, Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. According to Bloomberg, it already has holdings in Tencent (0.8 per cent) and Alibaba (1.3), but wants to acquire another 1 per cent in each: an approach they’ll find hard to refuse, even though the objective is to penetrate the two companies and oversee every key decision they make. Mao called this steady infiltration ‘mixing the sand into the hardened soil’.
In the new iteration of the anti-corruption drive, foreign companies won’t be left alone. According to our party’s entrenched grassroots vision of communism, wherever three or more party members find themselves thrown together in a working environment – a branch of the army, a management training college, a shop floor, a hospital or a 21st-century boardroom – in any corner of the world, they are to form a party branch. Years ago big companies operating in China, like Walmart, Carrefour and L’Oréal, rallied to the doctrine with enthusiasm and welcomed party branches. Disney is the latest to do so. The party branch usually lays on plenty of social events at the company’s premises; works outings are another favourite pastime. Foreign companies are expected to support these activities. But there’s also the more delicate matter of party membership dues. Members’ dues are calculated by the party as a proportion of their earnings. But foreign companies shy away from transparency on earnings, preferring to keep management and workers in the dark about one another’s rates. Their reticence leaves the party unable to calculate the dues of members who work for them. For the time being it makes do with unconfirmed declarations of earnings by its members, but it has begun to insist on hard evidence, and foreign corporations may be forced to comply.
One discouraging effect of the anti-corruption campaign is that when it cleaned up the public sector – and by and large it did – there was a marked drop in conversations round the virtual water cooler. People used to complain, argue, fight and gossip online with no thought for the consequences: ‘venting’ in China was not a bad thing. There is less of it these days. Round upon round of interventions by the party, silencing public intellectuals on the right and the left, cancelling ‘offensive’ social media accounts, deleting ‘poisonous’ comment, have left the active accounts on Weibo sunk in dreary conversations about pets and gardening, food and wine, make-up and fashion: the ‘harmonious’ obsessions of the new consumerism. Where do people go when they get upset or angry? Has our government failed to understand the uses of repressive tolerance?
The members of the Standing Committee elected at the congress, the new top seven, were all born in the 1950s; they lived through the Cultural Revolution and most of them were sent off by Mao to spend years in the countryside, though their attitude to that extraordinary period isn’t clear. Some Politburo watchers argue that the personal suffering of the seven members in their younger days is a guarantee that history won’t repeat itself as long as they’re in office. Others take the view that since they carry the memory of suffering, they can manage ruthlessness with equanimity.
As soon as Xi proposed his ‘Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ – the opening phrase of his report to the congress – universities and research institutes across the country launched ‘Xi Jinping Thought Study Centres’ by the dozen, competing to unpack every word of Xi’s monumental speech. Unlimited funds flow to research projects with ‘Xi Thought’ as the subject. It was enshrined in the party charter at the congress, which puts Xi on an ideological level with Mao and Deng. ‘New era’ is the key phrase in Xi’s discourse; ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ was simply inherited from the Deng era. The other big idea is ‘confidence’: ‘We must be confident in our path, in our theory and in our system as well as our culture.’ This ‘cultural confidence’ is Xi’s elaboration, announced at the party’s 95th birthday in 2016, of Hu Jintao’s ‘three confidences’ (no need to go into them one by one). Part of the message is that China is learning to overcome its sense of inferiority to the West, and disorder in the old imperial democracies – Brexit, then Trump – helps a lot. Even so our leadership continues to forage in the past for evidence of an ur-civilisation to propel this tenuous ‘confidence’ into the future. In 1996, during Jiang’s time, the eminent archaeologist and paleographer Li Xueqin was appointed head of ‘The Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project’, named for the three old dynasties of central China. Li set out to prove that the Chinese had built a sophisticated civilisation – thriving agriculture, highly developed cities, historical records, plentiful trade, and sound political institutions based on royal lineage and hierarchy – five thousand years ago, before the rest of the world got around to it.Li knew that this was a political assignment, not a call to scholarship, and came to the politically correct conclusion in 2000. His preliminary report was mocked by sinologists and damaged his international reputation, but his chronology still made its way into our school textbooks.
Perhaps five thousand years isn’t long enough to achieve ‘cultural confidence’. If the Hebrew calendar dates from the Creation in 3760 bc, and we think of Israel as a confident state, why shouldn’t Chinese ideologues, historians and folklorists beat a path back to our own creation myth, and announce not only that we had the first civilisation but that we came up with our very own Titan, Pan Gu, who split the sky and earth from primordial chaos with an axe roughly one million years ago. Some say three million. Any claim is possible at this point.