It was a rare slip in the rigid segregation of the 1,989 participants from the Chinese public, let alone the press. All the delegates, even those who live in the capital, have had to move into designated hotels for the duration of the congress. From there, they are taken everywhere in buses: to group meals, on organised visits and to the Great Hall of the People, on the west side of Tiananmen Square, for congress sessions. As they come and go, traffic is barred from the square, jamming the busy streets solid.
The whole of Peking has been spruced up for this event. Official buildings and overpasses on the central ring road have been hung with red banners carrying such slogans as, 'Ardently ensure that the basic line does not waver for 100 years.' Tiananmen Square, a paved desert created by in the Fifties, is filled with flowers and temporary fountains. Every antimacassar in the cavernous Great Hall, another Fifties relic, has been cleaned and starched. Even the weather has been kind to delegates: warm autumn sunshine has been punctuated by just enough rain to settle Peking's notorious dust.
Whether the delegates have any influence on the future of China is another matter. Apart from a relative handful of provincial and municipal bosses who have participated in writing the script beforehand, and who are now engaged in last-minute bargaining over party posts, average congress-goers - 'model workers' from the hinterland, with a few entertainers and Olympic champions to add glamour - find the top leadership as remote as if they were watching the proceedings on television.
'To be an ordinary delegate to the congress means having to sit through hours of boring meetings, pushing a button to vote in pre- ordained elections, doing some shopping for everyone back home and never discussing anything important,' said a European diplomat. 'In short, just like party conferences in your country or mine.' There are some small differences, such as never having to worry about the voters. Just like a would-be Tory candidate seeking to catch the eye of Central Office, however, ambitious cadres use the congress to acquaint themselves with the party line and make their case for promotion.
The next step for those who have climbed their local hierarchy is to seek election to the Central Committee, which currently has 175 members and 105 alternates. Since the 1987 gathering, the list of candidates has been about 5 per cent larger than the number of posts. The list has already been revised on orders from the top to increase the number of economic reformists, according to reports. After an earlier 'pre-election' in secret to eliminate the surplus, it is understood that delegates had a rehearsal yesterday for today's closing ceremony, when every Central Committee member will be voted in unanimously.
Afterwards, the role of ordinary participants is to go home and spread the message of the congress. This, summed up in the opening address by the party secretary Jiang Zemin, is that every form of economic experimentation will be encouraged, but that political orthodoxy remains absolute. Further details are lacking: it has become clear over the past week that China's leadership is essentially reactive, and that economic policy will be made up as it goes along, under the label of 'the socialist market economy'.
To fill this void, China's supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, has been raised to a status rivalling that of Mao Tse-tung. The eulogies began with Mr Jiang's speech, in which the 88-year-old Mr Deng was cited 12 times. He had led the party and the people in 'another great revolution'; his theory of 'building socialism with Chinese characteristics' was a 'magic weapon guaranteeing that our party will always be vigorous'. The theme was later taken up by the People's Daily: 'In the past, we considered the commercial economy as a 'devil'. Now, with our magic weapon, we are making that devil work for us.'
The Theory of Deng Xiaoping, as the newspaper called it in a conscious echo of the Thoughts of Chairman Mao, is to be embodied in a tome containing more than 2,000 of his speeches. A film of his celebrated tour of the south earlier this year is about to be released: a gigantic billboard erected near Tiananmen Square to advertise it marks the first time Mr Deng's portrait has gone up in Peking. This is as close as anyone has come to seeing the supreme leader at the congress. His daughter, Deng Nan, insists he is 'hale and hearty', but others say he is frail, and that his mind wanders.
The 600 local and foreign journalists covering the congress have played their role, which is to demonstrate world attention while being denied any access. A programme of visits has been drawn up, as well as press conferences with second-level functionaries at the media centre, several miles from the Great Hall of the People. The purpose of these encounters is to reinforce the line, give a few statistics and play a dead bat to everything else.
Reuters correspondent: 'We understand that inflation has reached double-digit levels in the cities. How do you propose to control inflation? Is it possible to control the money supply when you are pouring money into inefficient state industries?'
Hong Hu, a vice-minister in the State Commission for Economic Restructuring: 'Some of the 35 big cities have double-digit inflation, but from January to September the national rate was below 5 per cent. We have a series of measures to control inflation.'
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