Beijing’s political tightrope-walk

Kerry Brown
13 March 2008

China's premier Wen Jiabao has said that he isthe world's most worried man. Across his desk pass reports on the many issuesthat could endanger the country's stability and halt its steady growth: environmental damage, energy-supply problems, social unrestamong them. At night, in the peaceful seclusion of the central Zhongnanhaicompound next to Beijing's "forbidden city", the worries must if anythingintensify. Wen's years as a consummate political insider and survivor may have brought him to acommanding political position - but nothing can have prepared him (or indeedanyone) for the task of steering the mighty entity that the People's Republicof China has become on a stable and sustainable course (see "China goes global", 2 August 2008).Kerry Brown is an associatefellow onthe Asia programme, Chatham House, and director of Strategic China Ltd. His most recent book is Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century (Anthem Press, 2007)

Also by Kerry Brown on openDemocracy:

"China's topfifty: the China power list" (2 April 2007)

"China goesglobal" (2August 2007)

"China's partycongress: getting serious" (5 October 2007)

"Shanghai:Formula One's last ride" (15 October 2007)

The premier's annual reportto the eleventh national people's congress (NPC, which met in Beijing on 5-18 March 2008) isa regular fixture in the Chinese calendar. It can also be supreme politicaltheatre. In the days of Zhu Rongji - Wen's predecessor in the 1990s - the wily,brilliant Zhu would swipe away pesky questions with a dazzling insouciance that enthralled visiting foreignjournalists. Here was a man consigned to forced labour in jail in the 1950s forbeing a "rightist", subsequently rehabilitated, and now with little left tofear. As a journalist friend said to me in Beijing, there will certainly neverbe another Zhu. It's an impossible act to follow, but Wen has been doing agood, competent job: lower profile, but respected and reasonably popular.

That is, until the snowstorms and associated energy shortfalls of late January 2008, whichleft the government in chaos and provoked significant disgruntlement amongChinese citizens stranded in the attempt to travel home for the new year.

The worst winter weather for decades leftmillions stranded at the worst possible time. China's migrant workers - thevery people whose loyalty the government of Hu Jintao (president) and Wen Jiabao (prime minister) have tried so hard to enlistand secure - were left to languish in railway stations throughout China'scoastal regions. This combination of elements - a large, prolonged publicassembly of Chinese wage-earners denied a rare chances to see their families -came dangerously close to igniting the social tinder-box that the Chinesegovernment spends a huge effort day after day seeking to contain (see StrugglingGiant: China in the 21st Century [Anthem Press, 2007]).

The government belatedly went intocrisis-mode. Wen even presented himself to the throng gathered at Changshastation in central China - voicing concern, even (in an unprecedented gesture) apologising on behalf of the government. Xi Jinping,elevated to the politburo at the seventeenth party congress of 15-19 October 2007 (and a favourite to be China's next president) was dispatchedto the poor province of Guizhou to express contrition.

Those less on-message received a scolding. Thecentral government sternly rebuked the leadership of Yunnan (southwest China)for its inefficiency in face of the weather-induced travel chaos. The widelyreviled Jia Qingling, head of the China people's politicalconsultative conference (CPPCC), was another target: when in preceding Wenat the NPC meeting to deliver his work report he largely ignored the travelproblems and offered no explanation for the failures of China's disasterplanning, attendees and delegate openly criticised him.

A people's burden

Wen Jiabao's own report to the nationalpeople's congress was important less for the mantras about "thoughtliberation" and "(breaking) the shackles of old ideas" than for a more prosaicreason: his setting of targets both for economic growth and for inflation. Hehas already been criticised for over-optimism in these areas, itself a signalof the nervousness of the political climate.

Alsoon China's politics in openDemocracy:

AndreasLorenz, "China's environmental suicide: a government minister speaks" (6April 2005)

IsabelHilton, "China's freedom test" (7 September 2005)

LungYing-tai, "A question of civility: an open letter to Hu Jintao" (15February 2006)

DavidWall, "The plan and the party" (29 March 2006)

ChristopherR Hughes, "Chinese nationalism in the global era" (18April 2006)

KerryBrown, "China's top fifty: the China power list"(2 April 2007)

Li Datong, "Beijing's Olympics, China'spolitics" (22 August 2007)

Li Datong, "Shanghai: new history, oldpolitics" (19 September 2007)

KerryBrown, "China's party congress: getting serious" (5October 2007)

Li Datong, "China's modernisation: a uniquepath?" (28 November 2007)

Li Datong, "Xiamen: the triumph of publicwill?" (16 January 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "One, two or many Chinas?" (15 February 2008)

China's current inflation rate - the consumerprice index rose by 8.7% in February 2008, and food costs byan astonishing 23.3% - presses greatly on its people's livelihoods. In thepopular mentality at least, the two things that combined to destroy thelegitimacy of the nationalist government that fell in 1949 were inflation andcorruption. In truth, the forces leading to the communist takeover were larger:most of all the country's utter devastation by twelve years of war, bothinternal and external. But no one can dispute that by the end of the regime'slife, a ruined economy - to which spiralling inflation had contributed - meantalso an exhausted government that had lost the love of the people.

In 1989, the same coupling of corruption andinflation was a factor in the disturbances that so unsettled the party (albeitthese factors were overshadowed by more directly political ones). In themid-1990s too, the inflationary spectre required adept intervention (a famed"soft landing") by then premier Zhu Rongji to cool the Chinese economy. Morethan a decade later, the problem looks more intractable, and Wen's annual inflation target of 4.8%seems ambitious.

The rises in the price of meat and otherstaple foods (some of them steep) make living conditions tougher for the veryconstituency Hu and Wen must keep happy - farmers, migrant workers, factoryworkers; that is, the billion Chinese not yet part of the burgeoning middleclass the post-1978 reforms have created. For these people, every yuan matters. The budgets even of urban-dwellersare stretched to the limit. They are already saving furiously to cope with ahost of responsibilities: health costs, housing costs, the educational costsof their children, the growing number of older folk in their families, as wellas unexpected emergencies.

In these circumstances, a hike in food prices isvery unwelcome to people all over China. For the Beijing leadership, inflationmuch beyond 5%-6% could become a major political headache - and Wen'scrisis-management crash-course during the deep-freeze prove only the precursor to a much harsher sequel.

A balancing-act

All of this makes the billions of dollarsspent on the Olympic gameslook increasingly incongruous. The main buildings are finished, and Beijing isnow attending to the details. But the cold international atmosphere -assiduously reinforced by campaigners who have sought to brand the extravaganzaas the "genocide Olympics" - has exposed the Chinese leadership's obvious lackof preparation in the arena of images as opposed to infrastructure. Thereaction in China to Stephen Spielberg's resignation from the creative committee of the openingceremony - both defensive and insinuating - is revealing of a deeper confusion.Despite seeking counsel from western public-relations firms, Chineseofficialdom still has a long way to go in dealing with a story-hungry, fractious and scepticalforeign media that is very far from the pliant creature it is used to at home.

Thus, the great event on 8-24 August 2008 -far from the smoothly spectacular entry onto the global stage that Beijingenvisaged - is shaping up to be a big test for the Chinese leaders (see LiDatong, "Beijing's Olympics, China'spolitics", 22 August 2007). Theproblem for Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and their comrades is that theinternational spotlight on their hosting of the Olympics (with all thecriticism this entails) requires them to show to the Chinese people that theyare standing up strong and proud for China's interests at the very time whenthey must (in jittery economic circumstances) continue to deliver theall-important growth that they need to remain secure in power.

True, they are tough and realistic people, and are probably in as good ashape as any rival elite would be to meet the challenge. But they face abalancing-act as difficult as any that will earn gold during the games; and ifthe leaders get through reasonably unscathed, they will merit a placeon the Olympic podium for political acrobatics.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData