Citizens International

Ready for your close-up, Mr Xi?

by Pepe Escobar
posted November 9, 2012 by Aljazeera

Hope and change, Chinese-style, erupts at the highly-choreographed Communist Party Congress

Just like his predecessor Jiang Zemin, Chinese President Hu Jintao is bound to remain at least for another two years as head of the Party’s all-powerful Central Military Commission [AP]

Forget about ground game, demographics, getting turnout, micro-targeting of voters, possible voter suppression, minority voting.

And forget about myriad lines at countless polling stations; here we just need the Great Hall of the People, that Stalinist marvel next to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Yes, we got an election. And yes, for President. But don’t expect Karl Rove types having a fit on Fox/Faux News, refusing to bow to sound math when their candidate is going downhill. Instead of a multi-month, multi-billionaire campaign, make it a week. And Congress in this case is the 18th Party Congress, attended by 2,270 delegates.

In the end, roughly 370 technocrats will be elected for the Central Committee. As for the overall winner, well, everybody has known the winner for months; former Vice-President (since 2008) Xi Jinping, 59; next week he will be duly appointed as the new secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party. And then, in March 2013, the National People’s Congress will anoint him as the new President of the People’s Republic of China.

Mitt Romney would have killed for something like this; Xi’s opponent is… nobody. Well, make it a lot of somebodies. According to a Global Times poll, 8 out of 10 Chinese want some sort of political reform, as soon as possible; and almost 70 per cent want the government – as in the Communist Party – more accountable to civic society.

Their message eventually may even be heard. Yet never in a messy way; by Thursday next week – as in every 10 years – new faces at the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee apart from Xi, the real rulers of China, will be revealed. It’s this Gang of Nine which will call all the shots.

We know best

Since the whole world already knows who the next Big Guy is, let’s cut to the chase/press conference. Enter Cai Mingzhao, official spokesman for the 18th Party Congress: “China is in a crucial stage of building a modern and prosperous society in all respects, taking on reform and opening up, and accelerating the transformation of the growth pattern.” That’s all outsiders need to know. Incidentally, reality has already found a nasty way to accelerate “the transformation of the growth pattern” – as China’s growth now is the weakest since 2009. And it could get worse.

The Party certainly managed to get rid of former political superstar in larger-than-life Chongqing, Bo Xilai – via murky murder allegations against his wife. After being expelled two months ago, Bo now faces trial on unspecified charges related to abuse of power, corruption and cover-ups – as if no other Party stalwarts had been engaging in these practices for years.

Officially, though, all that has transpired is what Cai Mingzhao has been allowed to say; “Problems involving Bo Xilai… and others are serious corruption cases among our party’s high-ranking leading cadres, and have offered a profound lesson.” For millions, the lesson was more like populist Bo – a true communist – has been purged by the gang of neoliberals in charge.

Cai Mingzhao also told the world about “the strong resolve and unequivocal attitude of the Party to uphold integrity and fight corruption”. How? This could only happen via an extremely wide-ranging internal reform – and that’s far from certain. After all, “China has scored world-renowned development achievements. It speaks fully to the strong leadership of the (Communist Party) and the fact that the political party system of China suits China’s national reality.”

Maybe not. Way beyond cynicism and anxiety, the formerly red masses are getting extremely restless against cronyism, corruption and social injustice – especially in the Chinese blogosphere (and even under massive censorship; and even without Facebook and Twitter, blocked in China). The indigenous internet is boisterous to say the least; microblog Seina Weibo boasts over 300 million users. And they’re mad as hell and can’t take it anymore.

The horizon spells gloom. Three months ago, a China Society for Economic Reform research paper titled “Internal Reference on Reforms: Report for Senior Leaders”, written by Yuan Xucheng, stressed that if the model – a sort of “neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics” still skewed towards state-run (or Party-run) companies that is turbo-charging social inequality – does not change, there will be another revolution.

Then the National Development and Reform Commission – in charge of economic planning – reached a startlingly succinct but quite accurate conclusion: China is “unstable” at grassroots level, “dejected” all across the middle class and “out of control” at the top. Reform is absolutely imperative. Otherwise, “social turmoil” is at hand.

Back to class struggle

Solutions to these gloomy prospects range from adopting more “flexible” interest rates and less state control of the financial sector – a possibility – to maintaining absolutely no tolerance for dissidence – a certainty. It all revolves around the ultra-complex dynamics of a Party facing a steep erosion of its legitimacy and its (unlikely?) regeneration towards managing the ravages of inequality and delivering what amounts to real power to the people.

In this volatile context, the “class struggle” terminology once again is very much alive. The supreme paranoia though remains the possibility of a fiscal and financial crisis. Xi has up to 2022 to prevent China from plunging in the abyss of a “middle-income trap” and interminable stagnation. That would be the post-everything equivalent of Mao Zedong’s dreaded luan (chaos).

Officially, at least it’s now recognised that China’s “glorious decade” is over. Dubya in the US spent eight years in power – with cataclysmic results. Hu Jintao – a Republican-style diehard conservative with the charm of a boiled cucumber – spent 10. His legacy may not be exactly stellar, in terms of an increasingly authoritarian streak, China’s abysmal inequality spreading out, and the environment being plundered as if there’s no tomorrow.

In Hu terminology his “glorious decade” was all about building a “harmonious society” – laced with plenty of “scientific development” and a cheesy, widespread blossoming of “happiness”. In fact, this boiled down to “We know best. And don’t try to contradict us; after all, we rule absolutely and control everything” – as in the Party, the police and the propaganda machine.

Pentagon honchos, take note: the Party does spend more on an immense law enforcement network than on defence. Any elections in Chinese villages where independent candidates became too popular were duly “discontinued”. And this is now a monster; the Communist Party boasts no less than 83 million members. Organised dissent, to change this state of affairs, has to happen in Star Wars mode.

The Sino-change guy

In absolute terms, Hu’s record is quite impressive. Ten years ago, China’s economy was slightly bigger than Italy’s (we’re talking about volume, not manufacturing quality); now it’s the world’s number two, with a shot at becoming number one before 2020. It already is the world’s top exporting power. China’s GDP per capita though is still a mere $5,400 (yet five times more than in 2002).

Under Hu, the Party got rid of taxes on farmers and introduced China’s version of Obamacare – “Hucare”? – spread out to 97 per cent of the countryside, as well as a very simple pension system. At least 95 per cent in a population of over 1.3 billion now has access to some form of health insurance. True, the real estate bubble may burst with cataclysmic consequences – but an investment of no less than $800bn has yielded at least 36 million new houses completed during the building boom.

Hu will be out of the picture next week, but still in. His network will remain leading whole provinces and top bureaucratic posts. Just like his predecessor Jiang Zemin, Hu is bound to remain at least for another two years as head of the Party’s all-powerful Central Military Commission. Only four months ago, in a crucial speech, he stressed once again that without the Party at the helm as “the indomitable leading core of socialism with Chinese characteristics” China won’t go anywhere.

Will this vision prevail? All eyes are now on Xi. Chinese hardliners want more neoliberalism and a whiff of political opening. True communists want, well, respect to the tenets of the faith. And then there’s the Hu position – which has been a cautious application of Deng Xiaoping’s famous “crossing the river while feeling the stones” maxim. The problem is now Xi faces more of a stone avalanche.

How’s that for suspense? Xi might eventually be the candidate of Hope and Change that China needs. Maybe then he will learn what voter micro-targeting is all about.

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is named Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

Hope and change, Chinese-style, erupts at the highly-choreographed Communist Party Congress.