China's leaders give little away
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - China watchers were disappointed when Vice President Xi Jinping was not given an expected nod as the country's next president at last week's annual meeting of the Communist Party's Central Committee. Also surprising, however, was the party leadership's insistence on holding closed-door meetings shrouded in secrecy that were concluded with meaningless communiques reported by the official Xinhua News Agency.
When the four-day conclave ended on Friday, September 18, there was no press conference, and none of the 370 members and alternate members attending the fourth plenum of the 17th Central Committee, held at Beijing's posh Jingxi Hotel, chose to comment on the weighty matters of state that had been discussed. Instead, Xinhua spouted the usual platitudes about maintaining economic stability, continuing the party's fight against corruption, increasing intra-party democracy and enhancing ethnic harmony.
As for specific plans and goals, there were none. As for a vision of the country's future, there was nothing. And thus, once again, analysts are left reading tea leaves as if the world remained in the grips of the Cold War and Mao Zedong and his counterparts in the former Soviet Union were still going strong.
With China now entering the first rank of nations and seeking a greater voice in international affairs, China's population of 1.3 billion deserves better. It is too much to ask that meetings like these be open to media coverage, but daily briefings are certainly in order and, surely, once the plenum has concluded, party leaders should face the public, make a statement and take a few questions.
We don't need or expect a communicator like US President Barack Obama to address the Chinese public and the international media after a party meeting. But it is wrong for a great nation, which China is fast becoming, to offer no communication at all besides the empty banalities of an official press release.
As the party's general secretary and the nation's paramount leader, President Hu Jintao is the obvious candidate to lead out after a plenum, but Premier Wen Jiabao has proven to be a better speaker and also has a common touch appreciated by ordinary people. A question and answer with Wen would do wonders to improve the party's image and introduce greater transparency into its affairs.
For now, however, doors are closed, mouths are sealed and the tea-leaf readers are in great demand.
What does it mean, for example, that Xi - widely regarded as Hu's heir apparent before the plenum - was not appointed vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC)? After all, when the Central Committee gave that key position to Hu 10 years ago, the appointment paved the way for him to be selected as president in 2003.
Xi's failure to secure the post could be a sign that party leaders are still undecided about who will succeed Hu in 2012 and that a power struggle is under way. As China prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary of communist rule on October 1, the ongoing guessing game about its politics suggests that there is still no coherent system in place to determine succession.
Equally unsettling is the party's endemic corruption at the local level. Despite various declarations of war on official venality, little progress has been made. True, some big names have fallen in the crusade against graft over the past year - former Shenzhen mayor Xu Zhongheng, former Guangdong police chief Chen Shaoji and vice president of the Supreme People's Court Huang Songyou, to name a few. In the end, however, these high-profile busts represent a mere drop in the ocean of corruption in China.
Bringing down select individuals in the party who have abused their power is easy pickings; tackling a systemic problem that is eating away at China's remarkable record of economic growth over the last 30 years would be far more difficult and valuable.
Ironically, the gleeful coverage in mainland media earlier this month of the life sentences handed down to former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian and his wife for stealing millions of dollars in state funds while accepting bribes worth many more millions may come back to haunt Beijing. Chen, a supporter of Taiwanese independence, has long been a nemesis of China's leadership, but now he is also a symbol of a Chinese leader at the highest level brought to book for corruption.
Against this background, the Central Committee's communique promised to "address both the symptoms and root causes of corruption," but there was no hint of a plan to support that vague pledge.
The communique also characterized greater internal democracy as "the lifeblood of the party". Indeed, in theory, genuine competitive elections within the party could go a long way toward addressing corruption and bringing transparency to party affairs, but "intra-party democracy" has been a catchphrase for years at party meetings and only token progress has been made. That is because there are so many corrupt officials resisting change. So the vicious circle continues.
In addition, according to Xinhua, the post-conclave bulletin promised to improve ethnic harmony by launching "massive, in-depth and persistent educational campaigns on ethnic unity".
This announcement comes in the wake of riots last July in the restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region which were followed this month by bizarre syringe attacks in the streets of the region's capital, Urumqi. Such campaigns are unlikely to win over Xinjiang's largely Muslim Uyghur majority, who feel their culture has been undermined by Beijing and their leaders branded as separatists and terrorists.
The plenum's pledges on the economy were equally underwhelming; platitudes aside, however, Chinese leaders can take great pride (and relief) in the country's economic performance. In a year which saw the Western world, led by a suicidally greedy Wall Street, go into an economic tailspin not seen since the Great Depression, China is on track for 8% growth, a figure the leadership feels will keep social unrest at bay and further enhance its international clout.
Beijing's calculations are probably correct. In the end, because of its enduring economic success as the rest of world faltered, Chinese influence has never been stronger and continues to grow. Unfortunately, this has done nothing to improve party plenums, which remain dull exercises in opacity.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.