The Princelings Take The Stage

18 Nov

There was another election among the great powers recently. Unlike the American one, I’m not getting any hope about change from the appointment of Xi Jinping to the Standing Committee of the Politburo.

Chinese politics employs both spectacle and concealment: the demonstration of power – via the grandeur of the newly concluded party congress and the crush of journalists vying for shots on Thursday – yet the obfuscation of its workings.

“They actually operate in a way to deify the power … if you get to see how they talk and discuss things, it reduces the mystery of power,” said Wang Zhengxu, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Nottingham. “But they also want to communicate to the public that the central committee and its politburo are making decisions according to rules for the benefit of the public.”

No one can be sure what Xi stands for, still less what he will achieve as the first among equals. The scarcity of hard facts have also led to analysts noting, albeit mostly with tongues in cheeks, the relative size of chairs at the congress and the decision of one new leader to wear a blue rather than red tie.

It’s a bizarre kind of oligarchical fishbowl from which Xi has emerged as one of seven, and most of the others are as aristocratic as the commie misnomer misdirects. If one is looking for what corruption smells like, Beijing reeks and isn’t covering it up. And, the good news is, that this is the political cesspool that wants to do business with Ohio the United States.

On the one hand, its leaders acknowledge the major challenges facing them but, on the other, they are extremely reluctant to alter the power structure or the reliance of economic growth which have produced many of these problems. Meanwhile they indulge in backstairs politicking worthy of any Western party.

They fear that political reform would bring the whole edifice tumbling down, Gorbachev style. They stress Party unity above all, particularly since the drama surrounding the fall of the maverick politician, Bo Xilai, who crashed to earth this year accused of crimes, corruption and womanising after the mysterious death of the British businessman, Neil Heywood, in his southwestern fiefdom of Chongqing – but whose real sin was to have emerged as a challenger to the consensus machine that runs the People’s Republic.

The bureaucracy and powerful vested interests, especially in the huge state sector of the economy, oppose reform that could affect their privileged positions. Popular protests, running to some 150,000 a year, have been met by an expansion of spending on state security, now larger than the military budget. Media are tightly controlled and censors patrol the internet.

While individual liberties have greatly increased, anybody who tries to organise political opposition is likely to end up in jail, as in the case of the Nobel Peave Prize winner, Liu Xiabao who is serving 11 years for having organised a petition in favour of democracy. Xi may smile for the cameras but this remains an iron-fisted regime which has control in all forms at its heart.

Yet, outside the serried ranks of delegates in the Great Hall of the People, everyday life in Beijing and across China went on last week in a way that takes as little account as possible of the ruling autocracy. Rather than Communism or Confucianism, the “ism” that rules in today’s China is materialism. Having had a terrible 30 years under Mao, the Chinese have grasped the opportunities of market-led economic reform with both hands.

So, it looks like avoiding a Sino-American trade war will be a fairly easy two-step. As long as the American defense establishment gets its newest version of the Cold War, to maintain its bloated budget, there’s no reason why everyone – the media, too – can’t get rich – it’s glorious.


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