Thursday, November 01, 2012

China on edge as leadership change nears

China's leadership change that comes around once every decade has the party and its current leadership on edge.


Previous changes have gone smoothly, and even unnoticed by international media. While eyes have been focused on China since Mao's death in 1976, this year's leadership transition has attracted more attention than usual.

There have been several transitions of leadership since Mao, a process which is formally announced during the National People's Congress. The title of President only came into being following the introduction of the 4th constitution in 1982, the title formerly known as Chairman of the People's Republic of China.

In the seven or so years following Mao's death there were a number of Presidents including Li Xiannian, Yang Shangkun and Jiang Zemin though throughout this period it is Deng Xiaoping
who has become the focus of political analysts despite actually holding a lower position within government. Nonetheless, Deng became the core of the "second generation" of Chinese leadership and is considered "the architect" of  China's opening up policy in what was effectively a synthesis of theories that became known as the "socialist market economy".

Since his time in office China has been led through a rapid economic ascent by Jiang Zemin, and for the the last ten years by Hu Jintao. But rapid economic growth has also brought its own problems. As technology has reshaped the West, it has brought worries and concern for China's leadership.

Internet era

The Internet is a double-edged sword, bringing a useful tool for commerce but a dangerous source of information and a tool for dissent. Despite China's best efforts, through a sophisticated apparatus known as the Great Firewall of China, information about corruption, political ideology and other sensitive subjects are more freely discussed than was ever possible a decade ago.

The problems existing in China are far from new, but discussion about such subjects is less easy to suppress. The older, less tech savvy generation are often left outside such discussions and less able to access information critical of the party. The younger generation who have grown up with the Internet are far more aware of the latest scandals gripping the party. And this year has brought more than its fair share of scandal.

Scandals & corruption

The Communist Party leadership has been thrown into turmoil over revelations about former corrupt official and governor of the mega-city Chongqing Bo Xilai, his murderess wife Gu Kailai who was this year sentenced to life imprisonment for killing British businessman Neil Heywood, and his playboy son Bo Guagua. The party has attempted to draw a line under the whole affair by ousting Bo Xilai from office. In addition authorities quickly charged Gu and an accomplice with murder and tried several police officers that were said to have been behind a cover-up.

Not everyone has been satisfied with the result. Rumours persist suggesting the Gu Kailai seen in court was an imposter, and that others charged such as Wang Lijun, the police chief that brought the case to the world's attention was being treated as a scapegoat for bring embarrassment to the party.

While even Bo Xilai has been ousted from office, his relatively lenient punishment has brought criticism from the general public. Many feel that corruption within the party and amongst officials is not being dealt with effectively.

Authorities might have thought they had brushed one scandal under the carpet but by early September another story surfaced which implicated a close ally of President Hu Jintao in a fatal crash on Beijing's streets.

According to several well-connected party officials, the crash, on Beijing's Fourth Ring Road earlier this year, killed one man on impact and left two women seriously injured. All were said to have been in various states of undress. While crashes are not uncommon, the details which emerged became a further embarrassment for the Communist Party leadership.

The man behind the wheel of the wrecked Ferrari was said to be the son of Ling Jihua said to be Hu Jintao's "most trusted and notorious political fixer". The high-speed crash shed further light on the lifestyles of those around the Communist leadership and drew particular criticism from Chinese netizens who saw through the cover up [BBC / NYT / Guardian / Twitpic]

Wealthy officials

Details and rumours surrounding Bo Xilai and Ling Jihua have rattled the communist party. But revelations concerning the wealth of other top politicians have also raised eyebrows of China watchers as well as a growing skeptical and suspicious population.

In June Bloomberg published a report alleging that the family of Xi Jinping, the incoming president, had a fortune of around $346 million. This was not welcomed by China who immediately blocked the financial news website and told Chinese banks to stop using Bloomberg's financial data terminals, potentially costing the company millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Not dissuaded from revealing the financial affairs of China's leaders, the New York Times last week published details about the hidden wealth of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao's family which ran into billions [NYT]. Retribution was swift. The US based website was blocked and all mentions of the premier were censored on China's versions of Twitter including Sina Weibo. News organisations which reported the news were also censored with blackouts also being imposed on broadcasters such as CNN and the BBC [Channel 4 News / Australian / Telegraph].

Blocking information

The blocking of the New York Times websites came only four months after the launch of a Chinese-language site, which the company said at the time was "intended to draw readers from the country's growing middle class" through a mixture of reporting by Chinese journalists and Times articles translated from English.

The New York Times started the Chinese language website at the end of June, hiring 30 to 35 staff and with an estimated $2.5 million a year budget, according to the Nieman Journalism Lab. The project could be in peril if the Chinese authorities decide to block the site indefinitely which in the light of previous incidents seems likely.

The Guardian launched a Chinese language site though the project soon fell by the wayside after being constantly blocked. Rupert Murdoch also gave up his dream of piping Chinese TV to every home in the country. Over a period of almost 20 years, he travelled regularly to China and assiduously courted its leaders, in the hope of creating a truly global satellite network. But last August, News Corporation announced it was selling its controlling stakes in three of its Chinese television channels to a domestic private equity fund based in Beijing and Shanghai.

The Financial Times and Murdoch's Wall Street Journal run Chinese-language services, with the FT boasting some 1.7 million users, the both publications suffer from occasional censorship. The BBC also runs a Chinese language website, but it has been inaccessible on the mainland for many years.

It is not the first time the New York Times have run into trouble with Chinese authorities. In 2006, the authorities put a Chinese researcher working for the New York Times on trial after the newspaper revealed that Jiang Zemin, the former president, would relinquish his grip at the top of China's military. Eventually, the charges of leaking state secrets were dropped, but Zhao Yan, the researcher was sentenced to three years in prison for fraud.

Concerning the latest reports in the New York Times, China has dismissed them with foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei telling reporters the article was an attempt to "smear China" and had "ulterior motives." Meanwhile Wen's family have denied the reports [Telegraph].

Evading censors

Unsurprisingly state-run newspapers made no mention of the scandal nor the comments made by the Ministry spokesman. "Only a small proportion will be aware of the story," one seasoned China watcher Willy Lam told AFP. He estimated that about 10% of China's 500-million-strong online population would still manage to evade the censors, however, amounting to about 50 million people.

There were few signs that the news had filtered down on the streets of Beijing, though a few people that spoke to reporters indicated they had heard rumours.

When asked most said they had not heard the news, however few expressed any surprise or moral outrage. "Everyone knows the top officials have wealth," one man in his 30s said. "But this does seem a bit much."

Another 32-year-old man said he believed there was some mischief making on the US side. "This is some sort of political game because of the US election," the man suggested. But he did not dismiss the reports. "I always thought Wen was a good leader, but I never thought he was clean. I expect the other leaders have all got a lot of money too. This sort of phenomenon is very common in China."

A 27-year-old woman said she had not seen the latest report but had seen a similar report by Bloomberg in June which highlighted Xi Jinping's accumulated wealth. "These things are censored but you can still see traces," she said. She expressed an air of resignation concerning the way news was controlled. "Of course I wish Chinese newspapers would report it, but what can we do? The block on the media is one of the reasons they are able to be so corrupt."

There is little the population can do. Most can only sit back and watch as their self appointed leaders reshuffle their positions of power. Last week China reshuffled some of its senior military officials, kicking off the start of the leadership transition which will be finalised at the National Party Congress next month [FT].


There were more displays of paranoia this week after authorities imposed a ban on kitchen knives, restricted the sale of toy helicopters and has even ordered taxis to prevent windows from being opened to stop passengers handing out leaflets to passers by [The Atlantic / Telegraph].

Few are under illusions that the change of leadership will bring about any real change, though with growing unrest in many parts of the country the new leadership might be increasingly concerned how to legitimise its grip on power.

While there have been displays of nationalism, whipped up by the Communist Party and even China's search engine Baidu [BBC], concerning disputed territories in the East and South China Seas, authorities are well aware that such protests could easily become demonstrations calling for more democracy.

Rising protests

Perhaps emboldened by recent nationalist anti-Japanese protests, thousands have taken to the streets in the last week to air their grievances over plans to expand a petrochemical plant in the city of Ningbo in Zhejiang province [BBC]. The sometimes violent protests have forced the government to shelve the plans, though there will be deep concerns amongst officials over such demonstrations [BBC / FT].

In an article published recently in the Financial Times, Daniel Twining, a senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, suggests that political liberalisation is a strategic imperative if China is to sustain its rise toward world power status.

Calls for democracy

Twining asserts that democracy would "enhance China's legitimacy in reforming international institutions to give itself a more central role in the global order." In fact he suggests that the democratisation of China is a "strategic imperative" if the country intends to sustain its rise toward world power status.

While Twining may have a point, Beijing is unlikely to listen to the views of foreign correspondents and academics. After all they are less than willing to listen to their own people, apparently preferring to feather their own nests while they reshape China in their own vision. Anything that might upset such plans, be it truth or rumours, must of course be quickly suppressed. The party, after all, must prevail and maintain order and continuity.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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