China’s 18th Communist Party Congress, popularly known as “The Eighteenth Big”, kicked off in the Great Hall of the People in downtown Beijing yesterday as the world’s most populous nation geared up for a once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
A giant red star looked down from the ceiling on a hall bedecked with red flags and packed with nearly 2,300 hand-picked delegates, seated in careful rows for the start of the week-long session.
The meeting takes place against a backdrop of growing social unrest, public anger at corruption and a widening wealth gap. The meeting is expected to name Xi Jinping as China’s new leader.
In a 100-minute speech to open the event, outgoing President Hu Jintao hailed his 10 years as the country’s president as China’s “glorious decade” but warned that corruption – a regular theme in the run-up to the meeting – threatened the ruling Communist Party and the state.
“If we fail to handle corruption, it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state,” said Mr Hu, addressing the gathering from a vivid, red and gold stage.
His remarks, which hail from a report entitled, “Firmly March on the Path of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and Strive to Complete the Building of a Moderately Prosperous Society in all Respects”, were greeted by regular rounds of applause.
“Reform of the political structure is an important part of China’s overall reform. We must continue to make both active and prudent efforts to carry out the reform of the political structure and make people’s democracy more extensive, fuller in scope and sounder in practice,” Mr Hu said.
By democracy, Mr Hu is almost certainly talking about greater representation at grassroots level within the 82 million member Communist Party, not greater democracy in a Western sense. Congress spokesman Cai Mingzhao said earlier this week that nothing could threaten one-party rule.
Ordinary Chinese are becoming increasingly frustrated with corruption, especially among the families of senior officials. But for the party the issue has been most pointed with the purging of former rising star Bo Xilai, who was accused of taking bribes, of various sexual peccadilloes and of links to the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. Bo’s wife Gu Kailai has already been given a suspended death sentence for her part in the Briton’s death, while his one-time protégé and close associate Wang Lijun has also been jailed for treason and corrupt practice linked to Mr Bo.
“We must never let words act in place of the law or personal power replace the law; nor will we allow the ignoring of the law for personal benefit,” Mr Hu said, in a clear reference to Mr Bo.
One word which leaders have referred to regularly is “stability”, something that has been fundamental to Mr Hu’s decade in power, when he steered a steady, but deeply conservative path. For most of that decade in power, China was the fastest growing major economy in the world, with double-digit rates of economic growth every year. Mr Hu’s decade in China has substantially improved the living standards of most Chinese.
Keeping economic growth on track is the central plank of maintaining support for the Communist Party, which claims its legitimacy from a revolution which took place in 1949.
The sweeping changes in today’s China mean the party has to find relevance in other areas, including managing the economy to keep gross domestic product rising.
Mr Hu called for more balanced growth and said China should double GDP per capita income by 2020, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that China needs to reform in order to keep growing.
Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre, believes Mr Hu’s basic message is for the next leaders to follow his path until they can go no further, then the government can reassess things. “His legacy will be consensus-led, collective leadership in an age in which Chinese society was undergoing fast, profound and disorientating changes,” he said.
Beijing has been in security lockdown for the event. Racing pigeons have been banned, and taxis ordered to remove window handles from the back seats of cars, to stop people passing out seditious messages.
Human rights groups claim the police have rounded up the usual suspects ahead of the meeting. Police dragged away one yelling protester as the Chinese national flag was raised on Tiananmen Square at dawn.
And access to the internet has slowed to a crawl as the system of online controls – the so-called “Great Firewall of China” – kicks in.
It is also affecting virtual private networks that allow users to bypass internet filters.
There were elements in Mr Hu’s speech that might unsettle China’s neighbours. As bad relations between China and Japan continue to fester over a chain of disputed islands, Tokyo will not have been best pleased to hear Mr Hu talk of strengthening China’s military, especially the navy.
“We should enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests and build China into a maritime power,” he said.
Cue another carefully choreographed round of applause.