Sunday, November 18, 2012

No real change as China reshuffles leaders

China has undergone its once in a decade leadership transition, but despite all the fanfare there have been few surprises, and little expectation of any real change despite promises from the new line up of leaders [BBC].

Few surprises

There had been ten officials tipped for the top leadership roles within the Politburo's Standing Committee and while Bo Xilai's ousting created a space, prospectively filled by female politician Liu Yandong, the other prospective candidates remained unchanged.

The only big surprise was that only 7 were chosen, rather than 9, for a now slimmed down group of decision makers [BBC cached]. Out went potential candidates Liu Yandong, along with Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao.

Women fail to hold up the sky

Despite Mao's proclamation that "women hold up half the sky" there have been few positions held by female politicians, and some had hoped, perhaps naively, that Liu Yandong might have brought a fresh perspective to the party's core leadership and decision making process. But even while reports of her being tipped for a leading role had grown following Bo Xilai's fall from grace, most news reports described a possible run for a seat as a "long shot".

There are few women in Chinese politics and the annual session of the National People's Congress shows banks of dark-suited men. Only a fifth of the largely rubber-stamp legislature is female, and barely one-sixteenth of the party's central committee. There is only one female provincial party secretary and one governor. Furthermore, at the grassroots female village party chiefs make up around 2%-3% while 22% of committee members are female [Guardian].

Grey men of politics

Amongst the seven men who make up the Politburo Standing Committee there were only a few new faces. Xi Jinping replaces Hu Jintao as the General Secretary of the CPC, the Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission and as the President of the Central Party School of the CPC.

While there was little discussion in Chinese media, in the west he had long been expected to take this role. The new party leader Xi Jinping appeared on stage in Beijing's Great Hall of the People just before midday Beijing time on Thursday [04:00 GMT] with the six other members of the Party's Standing Committee.

Despite being a relatively new face on the world stage he is unlikely to bring much change to the face of Chinese politics. Even if he desire to bring about radical changes, either to the party or the state his hands will be tied and his actions scrutinised by the party as a whole.

On his first address he spoke of tackling corruption, but this will be dealt with very much from within the party. There will be little public scrutiny, and as such it will be difficult for anyone to evaluate how effectively the party is dealing with the bad apples.


Speaking to the press as the new leadership was unveiled Xi spoke of the challenges ahead. "The party faces many severe challenges, and there are also many pressing problems within the party that need to be resolved, particularly corruption, being divorced from the people, going through formalities and bureaucratism [sic] caused by some party officials," Xi said. "We must make every effort to solve these problems. The whole party must stay on full alert."

The other grey men in dark suits that stood beside him are less well known in the west but there were few surprises to China watchers. All were drawn from a list of favourite names widely mentioned by the media for months, an indication that the decisions had been made some time ago.

At least four out of seven new members are widely seen as allies of the 86-year old former leader Jiang Zemin. Meanwhile the outgoing leader Hu Jintao's three allies, Li Yuanchao, Liu Yandong and Wang Yang, did not make it into the Standing Committee. Hu has also given up his post as the chairman of the Central Military Commission, indicating he will fully retire from his political posts and stay away from political life too. Most of the new leaders are regarded as political conservatives and as such the prospect of political reform now looks more unlikely.

Propaganda war

In fact one man central to China's control of the population and its way of thinking remains firmly in place. Liu Yunshan has firmly established himself at the heart of the party as the Director of the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee which is involved in censorship of the media and the Internet.

Liu's position in the top organ of the party is seen by some as a perilous sign for online debate by critics of his censorship diktats over the last decade. China's population of Internet users, the world's largest at 538 million, have become increasingly vocal on its booming social media sites despite the efforts of the ruling party's highly secretive Propaganda Department.

Microblogging sites in China are strictly controlled and have seen an increased tightening of controls in recent weeks in the wake of the leadership transition. During the meeting, searches for "party congress" on Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblog, returned a blunt message: "Due to relevant laws, policies and regulations, the results of your search are not displayed."

Even innocuous comments about the gathering and top leaders were frequently deleted by online censors, and Internet access in major cities was reported to be noticeably slower, apparently reflecting stepped-up online oversight.

Google, which moved its servers to Hong Kong from mainland China in 2010 in a row over user accounts being hacked and censorship, found its services periodically blocked during the congress.

Liu's new portfolio has yet to be confirmed, but he likely to be put in charge of ideology because of his past role, offering activists few hopes of any relaxation in policy. "Liu has been a ruthless enforcer of censorship," Willy Lam, a Chinese politics expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Agence France Press.  "There will be an exacerbation of already draconian control of the media."

Growing Internet controls

According to an article in the Times of India, since deleted but cached by Google, it was reported that units in charge of policing the Internet have directed companies, included joint ventures involving American corporations, to buy and install hardware to log the traffic of hundreds or thousands of computers, block selected web sites, and connect with local police servers. Information obtained by The New York Times says that firms face the threat of fines and their Internet services suspended if they do not comply.

It is just one of many initiatives deployed in the months leading up to the 18th Party Congress in an escalating campaign to censor information deemed threatening to party rule. At least one unnamed foreign industry association has lodged a complaint with the government, while several other foreign companies have quietly resisted the orders, which they fear could pose risks to communications and revealing trade secrets.

The censoring and control of the Internet is a delicate balancing act between maintaining the party's hold on political power while maintaining China's wired connection to the global economy. Even before the Party Congress came to an end, there were few signs the powers that be were going to relax their grip on the flow of information.

On the opening day of the congress China's departing leader Hu Jintao in fact stressed the opposite. "We should strengthen social management of the internet and promote standardized and orderly network operation," Hu said.

Circumventing control

There are many who try to circumvent such controls, using VPNs or other software. But even these are often attacked with DNS poisoning attacks. Some attempt to evade censors using acronyms and slang terms, though these too can be short lived.

"Communist Party", "Coup d'etat" and "Democracy and Freedom" are just some of the long list of search terms blocked on the Twitter-like microblogging site Sina Weibo in China. But a new service, FreeWeibo, is trying to pull back the government's control over internet content by providing unfiltered searches on the microblogging site [Computer World / PCAdvisor].

Of course the site has already been blocked within China, but for China watchers it can provide a fascinating insight to the true mood of those using China's microblogs.

Economy and business

For foreign investors and those doing business with China, it is the economy that is the main focus of interest. Furthermore, just as China's civilian leadership has changed, China's military has also reshuffled. With influence over China's politics and policies having grown over the past decade, the military will shape China's future more than ever [Investors Insight].

While China may be unlikely to become the largest military power any time soon, their military force is growing, and their dominance in the region will become a major issue should issues surrounding territorial disputes spill over into conflict.

Human Rights and even concerns over currency manipulation may well take a back burner as President Obama engages with China over its assertiveness in the South and East China Seas [USNews].

Old challenges, same bosses

China will have many challenges itself over the next 10 years. A growing rich poor divide, human rights, and economic factors will all major in to decisions made by China's new leaders. In essence, little has changed. It's very much a case of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss," to quote a line from The Who's "Won't get fooled again".

Media coverage

Nonetheless, analysis of the transition has been scant, especially on broadcast news, somewhat overshadowed by a resurgence of violence in the Gaza strip.

While the BBC sent a team of correspondents to China, including their World Affairs Editor John Simpson, there were few major reports coming from  Beijing. Sky News, France 24, Al Jazeera, and CNN all reported on the leadership transition, but if one had blinked one would have missed it.

France 24  had some analysis with a two part report [Part 1 / Part 2] though such reports were often buried in the schedule. Sky News had a few reports though they too were often tailing way after the headlines relating to domestic news and the events in Gaza. Nonetheless, they saw the transition as important dubbing it  a "force for change".

CNN, while an international channel also failed to fill in the gaps, though many reports on their website raised issues that were of significant importance. Al Jazeera also only scratched the surface with its report of the leadership change though it did cover the significance relating to China's growing military strength.

In terms of Internet coverage the BBC did the best in providing background and analysis. However, given the relative importance of the transition media broadcasters in all camps failed [BBC / BBC / BBC / BBC / BBC].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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