The Headline Prince

Qi Gua reports from Beijing

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?’

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[*] Xi Jinping applied ten times before he became a party member. His father Xi Zhongxun was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, and Xi was deemed not suitable to be a member of the party.

[†] The recorded history of early China can be traced to 841 BC, but no further back.