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Lock up your ping-pong balls, Beijing to pick a new leader

Preparations are underway for China’s upcoming National Congress. Freelance journalist Kway Teow reports from Beijing on the tight security and media silence surrounding the leadership changeover.

The Beijing air is decidedly frosty this week, but the chill has more to do with the year’s first snowfall than any leftover hostilities from the interminable, inelegant territorial squabble with Japan over islands in the East China Sea.

On Sunday morning, shivering fingers throughout the capital reached for brooms and shovels to carve a path through the snow, a flurry of activity that almost — but not quite — masked the ramping up of preparations for the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which starts on November 8.

Security at subway stations has been beefed up, with the staff manning baggage scanners demonstrating a remarkable recovery from narcolepsy while others sport suspiciously new coats and billy clubs. Xinhua, the state news agency through which government edicts masquerade as reportage, said that vehicles carrying toxic or dangerous chemicals are forbidden from entering the capital from November 18. The police department is on full, warlike alert.

Of course, this being China, there has been a blossoming of some rather less pragmatic approaches to ideological protection. One decision likely to inspire bemusement (or spectacularly scupper rescue attempts in the event of an accident) has been the decision by some taxi companies to ensure that cabs lock their windows and doors when driving past political and pedestrian hubs like Tienanmen Square. There have also been social media reports of cabs and buses with their window cranks removed — as Confucius never wrote, beware passengers dispersing leaflets.

Some markets, super or otherwise, aren’t selling sharp objects like knives or scissors until the congress is over. And then there’s the ban on ping-pong balls, because some enterprising troublemakers wrote “adverse sentiments” on them before tossing them out the window.

Newspaper editors have been seen to grimace at story lists and mutter, almost under their breaths, that there is to be nothing controversial in print for at least the next two weeks. This is probably why The New York Times piece about prime minister Wen Jiabao and the $2.7 billion of assets amassed by his family went down like bad congee.

China moved quickly to block the Times website, which remains unaccessible from within the Middle Kingdom. The piece, published on October 26, has coincided with dramatically reduced internet speeds. In particular, Google’s suite of products have been prone to crashes and lags; speculation is rampant that the CPC’s all-seeing eye is paying close attention.

Still, this didn’t stop discussion of the piece on Weibo. Some of the more salacious rumours floating around the service, China’s answer to Twitter, painted disgraced former leader-in-waiting Bo Xilai as the person who leaked the relevant information to the Times. This is unlikely  — Bo is too well-groomed a scapegoat, and this sort of narrative runs the risk of descending into cartoon villainy, one step closer towards the government blaming him for global warming and the still-rumbling financial crisis.

(Also worth pointing out is that the Mandarin translation of the CPC’s congress is “shi ba da”, which has led to pun-happy Weibo users circumventing a ban on discussion of the event by using the codename Sparta.)

By forbidding any paper evidence, and by phoning or sending text messages directly among different levels, only one-way communication takes place between the publicity department and the media leadership …”

For many, however, the Great Firewall did its job. And there has been no mention of the story in print, as many local newspapers take direction from their ominously titled Publicity Departments, members of which offer final approval of pages after late-night scans.

These departments, used to lurking in darkened corridors, were dazzled by the spotlight following an excellent and frankly terrifying piece from Cheng Yizhong, a journalist and editor in China who was secretly detained for five months in 2004 on trumped-up charges. It’s well worth reading, but here’s an excerpt in Cheng’s low-key style, detailing life in the media under the presidency of Hu Jintao:

Censorship happens secretly; it is silent and effective. By forbidding any paper evidence, and by phoning or sending text messages directly among different levels, only one-way communication takes place between the publicity department and the media leadership, and between higher- and lower-level media leaders. The only rule for subordinates is to be loyal to the higher leadership and not cause trouble for them. Accountability and respect have become more straightforward. In time, the media leadership and workers have become used to self-censorship. Members of staff can protect their jobs and personal interests by informing on and betraying others, and so this has become the principal management tool. The dark and dangerous sides of the human character have been exploited.”

This is part of the reason why the CPC congress has received some of the most passionately jingoistic crooning since Meat Loaf discovered politics. Coverage of the upcoming US elections, which will take place simultaneously with the congress, make for an amusing alternative. Even China’s attempts to be anything other than partisan are conducted in the slightly patronising tone of a parent allowing a child to eat at the grown-ups’ table — behave, and you might be allowed to stay, even if you never get to choose the meal.

If all goes to plan, Xi Jinping will be named China’s next president at the congress. Even his remarkable two-week disappearance in September — scuttlebutt has it that there was some bickering involved  — is unlikely to mean a surprise announcement this weekend.

This sense of a vast and silent machine working in the background infects the thoughts of those who spoke to Crikey about the upcoming leadership change. For some, this is a good thing — many Chinese people are better off than they were in decades past, and there is grateful recognition that economic reforms will continue regardless of who wears the crown.

Others, however, feel the weight of crushing inevitability, of leaders who have suckled on the same doctrine and a political system they cannot effect.

At the moment, my vote will never be able to determine who is the leader in China,” said one respondent. “Therefore, I am indifferent.” Another expressed hope that slow changes could take effect, and someday she too could make a difference. “Maybe in a hundred years,” she said, face scrunched up in concentration.

These opinions might help to explain the importance of the anti-Japanese rhetoric that flowed so freely in August and September. If elections are preordained, if involvement is impossible, there’s nothing like a good, angry protest to make citizens feel like they’re involved — something China’s leaders don’t need a congress to figure out.

2
  • 1
    Ruprecht
    Posted Wednesday, 7 November 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Lock up your ping-pong balls” — - whaaat?!

    Crikey: Me no rikey

  • 2
    Daly
    Posted Thursday, 8 November 2012 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    I strongly agree with your Crikey lead this afternoon and Annabel Crabb’s article that the balance of Australian news should be more on China and it’s leadership for the coming 5 (10) years rather than on the US Presidental race.
    Even this single article (by a Mandarin speaker?) is hardly enough to balance the wall to wall US coverage.
    But, of course, Australian journalists/media find it easier to cut and paste from US and English sources than to employ or become Chinese speakers and then write about the most influential country for our future.

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