The 2,268 delegates are a diverse bunch but disagreements are hard to find and little has been left to chance
Amid the ornate chandeliers and lush red carpets of Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, flocks of Communist party delegates gathered this week to debate their country’s future. Yet in these debates disagreements were hard to find.
The 2,268 delegates from across China have convened in the capital to participate in the 18th party congress, a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, which began on Thursday morning. The delegates are a diverse bunch: among them are provincial governors, generals, academics, migrant workers and an Olympic swimming medallist.
Ostensibly they are responsible for selecting the country’s new central leadership and screening their superiors’ work reports. Yet their true function – to rubber-stamp top party bosses’ decisions – is a stark illustration of how carefully choreographed the congress truly is and how little has been left to chance.
“In theory they’re providing feedback – if there’s anything wrong with a report they’ll point it out – but usually that’s not the case,” said Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore. “It’s more of a celebration. They provide praise for the political reports.”
The leadership’s reports were drafted and redrafted for months before being revealed at the conference, Bo said. Xi Jinping was chosen as President Hu Jintao’s successor months ago.
Brief interviews with delegates showed how unwilling many were to stray from the party line. “We must build a moderately prosperous society according to the principles of scientific development,” said Xiao Yeqing, in words taken almost directly from Hu’s speech on Thursday. Li Jiayang, a delegate from the ministry of agriculture, opined that “it’s important for us to build a wonderful homeland by ensuring that China’s wealth is fairly distributed and its growth is sustainable”.
Originally there were 2,270 delegates selected to attend; two died before the congress began. According to Chinese media reports, 5% of delegates are under 35, and the average age is 52. Women comprise 23%, a slight increase from the last party congress in 2007. Ethnic minorities comprise 11%.
On Friday delegations held individual public discussions in rooms scattered throughout the hall. At the Tibetan delegation’s discussion, the region’s deputy governor, Lobsang Gyaltsen, blamed “external Tibetan separatist forces and the Dalai clique” for a string of recent self-immolations, according to Reuters apparently timed to coincide with the conference.
The far-western Xinjiang autonomous region’s delegation presented a series of turgid speeches about their development strategy. During a brief question and answer session afterwards, when a foreign reporter asked the region’s party secretary, Zhang Chunxian, whether his relationship with the former president Jiang Zemin might affect his chances of promotion, the politician laughed and chided the media for reading tea leaves.
Wang Yang, the party chief of Guangdong province, told reporters that government officials may soon be obliged to make full public disclosure of their assets, a sensitive issue after a string of stories in the international media alleging that senior officials’ families have amassed enormous wealth.
Five delegates are on the Forbes rich list, with the wealthiest, Liang Wengen, chairman of the construction equipment manufacturer Sany Group, worth almost $6bn. According to the Beijing News, there are also 26 migrant worker delegates, marking the first time the 250 million-strong demographic group has been represented at a party congress.
Most delegates hew to a conservative aesthetic: dyed black hair, gold-frame glasses, white shirts and red ties for the men; trouser suits for the women. Ethnic minority delegates wear tall hats and long, traditional robes. Delegates from military and police units wear their uniforms.
The youngest delegate is swimmer Jiao Liuyang, 22, who won a gold medal at the London Olympics and was chosen to represent the People’s Liberation Army at the congress. “Before I joined the party I thought being a party member was a title, but now I feel like being a party member is more like a responsibility,” she told the Beijing Times.
A handful of delegates were chosen for their model worker qualities, to espouse the virtues of perseverance and loyalty. Chinese newspapers have featured interviews with Zhu Lijun, a low-level worker at a boat-riding attraction in a Beijing public park. Zhu frequently worked 16 hour days to “ensure tourists’ safety”, according to the Beijing Times.
Shi Guangyin, 60, from Sidahao village, Shaanxi province, has been planting trees since 1984 as part of a government initiative to stave off desertification on China’s arid northern frontier, according to the Economic Times. He was the first person to be dubbed a “desert control hero” by the National Forestry Bureau. “The sky in Beijing is getting bluer and bluer,” Shi told the newspaper. “Seeing this blue sky makes the common people’s hearts happy and raises their spirits.”
China’s official newswire Xinhua painted a glowing portrait of Ren Xiaoyun, a migrant worker from Hebei province who has worked at a “garbage, excrement and urine removal and transportation centre” in Beijing for 16 years.
One underlying theme of the congress – that the party must maintain its grip on power – echoed in delegates’ statements to the media. “Faith and loyalty to the party is the root through which the party can grow from generation to generation,” said Jiao Ruoyu, a 97-year-old delegate, according to China Daily. “This spirit should be maintained whatever else changes.”