While the US licks its psychic wounds after an ugly 2012 election and settles back into its usual partisan squabbling (Oh, Hi John Boehner), the real most important country in the world has begun a governmental transition of its own. It’s called the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, and it started Thursday. There won’t be much popular voting going on, but unlike America, the leadership that will emerge from the process will feature a different set of characters than it started with. The Congress is political theater—emphasis on the theater. The action takes place inside the main auditorium of Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. All the important casting decisions were made months in advance. Party members in the lead roles will deliver lengthy soliloquies. And everyone is heavily discouraged from going off-script.
Practically, Xi Jinping will soon replace Hu Jintao as leader of the Communist Party of China and President of People’s Republic. The Politburo will induct new members, and a bunch of other shit will happen.
As exciting as it seems that the world’s most populated country and soon-to-be leading economic force is changing leaders, the proceedings themselves are pretty boring. But against the backdrop of corruption, murder, and suppression, this Congress comes at a critical and complicated point in the country's history.
SETTING THE STAGE
It's been a rough year for the Communist Party.
First, one of the civil rights activists they were illegally keeping under house arrest managed to escape and fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where he and his family were eventually granted asylum. This guy must be ninja Houdini, right? Actually, he's a blind, self-taught lawyer named Chen Guangcheng.
Second, one of their most senior members, Bo Xilai, the former party chief of Chongqing and one of the elite 25 who make up the Politburo, was found to have conspired with his wife to murder a British national.
What's worse, the story only broke because Bo's insanely corrupt vice-mayor and police chief, Wang Lijun, decided to stop protecting his even more insanely corrupt boss.
On February 6th, Wang, fearing for his life, ran to the US consulate in neighboring Sichuan province with evidence that Bo and his wife, Gu Kailai, had conspired to murder a British businessman named Neil Heywood, who may or may not have been a spy. You can't make this shit up.
I'll save you the play-by-play. Wang was sentenced to 15 years for defection and abuse of power, among other things; Gu was charged with murder and given a suspended death sentence (the Party rarely executes its own for crimes they wouldn't hesitate to kill laymen for). Wang's trial took two days while Gu's took only one. Justice in China is nothing if not swift.
For his part, Bo was gradually stripped of all his posts, including his place in the Central Committee and the Politburo, and was finally kicked out of the CPC on 4 November, just four days before the National Congress. He has not been seen in public and is presumably in a secret jail, awaiting his own show trial.
KEEPING THE PEACE
The Bo Xilai scandal was a crisis for the Party—the most serious since 1989—because it threatened their legitimacy. If Bo Xilai was so corrupt, people wondered, how did he make it so high up in the party apparatus?
With this in mind you can understand why, going into the once-in-a-decade leadership transition, the Party had a touch of stage fright.
They took every conceivable precaution, which, with their nearly unlimited power, inevitably veered into paranoid and absurdist territory. The government essentially blocked Google and its attendant services for, I guess, allowing people to freely access information, adding it to the growing list of blocked sites which includes Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
Also blocked were news outlets that published articles about the key players. Bloomberg and Businessweek were blocked for publishing an exposé on the wealth president-in-waiting Xi Jinping's family, even though the article did not accuse him of any wrongdoing. The New York Times disappeared after a similar piece on outgoing premier Wen Jiabao revealed that his relatives controlled assets of $2.7 billion.
Police in Gansu, a province in western China, even offered to pay 50,000 yuan ($8,000) for information regarding self-immolations, a phenomenon which has become more and more common, though news of such incidents are completely blacked out in domestic media. But $8,000 must not have been enticing enough because four self-immolations occurred the day before the Congress.
The absurdity reached its apex in Beijing, where the Congress is taking place. Taxi drivers were told to remove the rear window handles to prevent people from throwing leaflets out the window, though the cab I took a few days ago neglected to follow this proscription. Hotels were instructed not to show foreign news channels. Some supermarkets have taken knives and other sharp objects off the shelf.
Other potentially dangerous items include ping pong balls, pigeons, and remote-controlled model airplanes.
SO WHAT'S THIS THING LIKE?
With all the buildup and security, you'd think the National Congress was a cross between the Olympics and a G8 summit. But, as with all official political events in China, the Congress is like a Noh play, only much more incomprehensible and soporific.
Take, for example, this rousing rhetoric from Hu Jintao's keynote speech during the opening ceremony of the Congress:
Together with Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the important thought of Three Represents, the Scientific Outlook on Development is the theoretical guidance the Party must adhere to for a long time.
Don't worry if you can't understand what he's talking about—Chinese people can't either. "What does that even mean?" was the reaction from my Chinese co-workers. As another friend put it, "I listened to the speech for ten minutes and didn't hear one meaningful sentence."
It's almost impossible to gauge how average Chinese are reacting to the Congress. While television and newspapers, all of which are state-run, show happy smiling faces, the semi-free internet tells another story.
On Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site, photos of the aforementioned restrictions were spread around and parodied by users, but this sardonic, tech-savvy group is hardly representative of the Chinese population.
In the run-up to the Congress, netizens developed the codename "Sparta" to refer to the Congress in order to get around Internet censors. (In Chinese, the Congress is called Shibada, which sounds like the Chinese name for Sparta, Sibada.) "Sparta" has since become a banned search term on Weibo.
SO WHAT'S NEXT?
Don't expect any surprises.
As expected, Xi Jinping has been appointed secretary-general of the 18th National Congress, and it is assumed that, just as Bo gradually lost his posts, Xi will gradually inherit the roles that Hu Jintao now fulfills: General Secretary of the CPC, President of the People's Republic of China, Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission, and Chairman of the PRC Central Military Commission. As Shakespeare wrote, “one man in his time plays many parts.”
Some analysts predict the Politburo Standing Committee, the nine-member body at the top of the pyramid, might be cut down to seven. Two members are almost certain to stay—Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, the current vice-premier—but the other five to seven are anyone's guess. Despite all the hype, the token woman in the Politburo, Liu Yandong, is unlikely to be inducted.
Though Hu Jintao has encouraged the rule of law and cautioned the Party that corruption might be its undoing, it's hard to see how the words of a man who's out of a job in three days will solve a problem so pervasive, and change a system so dependent on patronage, corruption, and nepotism.
Whatever happens, the Party and the government will continue on their path of ensuring stability. They will keep buying American debt, keep trying to better the lives of their people, and, most of all, keep their hold on power at any cost—environmental, social, or otherwise.
But that's the interesting thing about a country with a dynastic history as long as China's. It's not about who has the power—it's about how long they can keep it.