Big Brotherhood

14 minute read
Hannah Beech / Beijing

On Oct. 1, the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, nine black-haired men in dark suits stood solemnly in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Looming over the clutch of men who constitute China’s current and future leadership were dozens of security cameras affixed to lampposts. Goose-stepping soldiers marched past. As always, a giant portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, gazed over the square, as did hundreds of plainclothes police with their telltale buzz cuts and watchful eyes. Despite the lavish floral displays and representatives of ethnic minorities in colorful garb, the square bristled with the paraphernalia of a paranoid security state.

China is on guard, even more so these days as the ruling Communist Party prepares for a once-in-a-decade leadership handover. On Nov. 8, the nation’s rulers, led by the grim-faced President and Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao, are expected to begin giving way to a new generation led by Vice President Xi Jinping. Heir apparent Xi and the presumed next Premier, Li Keqiang, took part in the Oct. 1 National Day celebrations, their pomaded hair and choreographed steps broadcast in an endless loop on state television.

The nation with the world’s second largest economy is on the cusp of a rare political transition, yet the path that its future rulers wish to take is largely a mystery. Though much of the world’s attention is focused on the Nov. 6 U.S. presidential election, what will start to transpire in China two days later is perhaps more important. The fate of the global economy hangs in part on how China’s leaders navigate potentially perilous financial and political shoals.

Xi and his cohort rose to the top of the Communist Party hierarchy, however, because of their ability to conform to a slow-moving and inherently conservative ruling consensus. A decade ago, China watchers armed with equally scant information about the next crop of Chinese commanders predicted that the Hu era would usher in political reforms to match China’s economic liberalizations. Those hopes were dashed. “No one imagined that Hu Jintao’s administration would be so backward,” says Zhang Yihe, the daughter of a purged communist revolutionary and a popular writer in Beijing whose books are banned in China. “Instead of liberalizing, political controls have actually increased. It’s an absurd situation for this day and age.”

Hard Times

Today, China is a much richer country than it was in 2002, but it is not a particularly freer place. As incomes have risen, so has the disparity between rich and poor. Corruption has proliferated. At the same time, the Internet has given once blinkered citizens alternative sources of information to the censored state media–and an alternative way to register their displeasure. The number of protests and other so-called mass incidents has increased so dramatically that embarrassed Chinese authorities stopped publishing figures seven years ago. Unable to depend on the courts to deliver justice, Chinese citizens are taking to the streets to demand action, despite the threat of imprisonment for such daring. The most common complaints include land grabs by property developers in cahoots with corrupt local officials, the flouting of pollution regulations by factories, unsafe working conditions for migrant laborers and government restrictions on ethnic minorities like Tibetans and Uighurs in the country’s far west. The most recent estimate, by a Beijing sociologist, was of 180,000 protest-related incidents in 2010, compared with 87,000 five years before. Prominent Chinese academics tell me that the number today is probably double that of two years ago.

No one is suggesting that these numerous but isolated flare-ups will spread into a wildfire of dissent–at least, not yet. But the rising discontent spooks China’s stability-obsessed leaders, not least because the Arab Spring demonstrated how quickly revolutions can gather force. “If you look at these protests, almost all of them are because of abuse of governmental power,” says outspoken Chinese economist Mao Yushi. “That’s why the leaders are very worried. They are the cause of the political instability.”

Yet as it marks more than six decades in power, the Communist Party still refuses to undertake significant political reform. Instead, Hu and his henchmen have constructed a massive internal-security apparatus that by China’s admission received more than $110 billion in funding this year. Weiwen (pronounced Way-when) is Chinese shorthand for maintaining stability, and it is the government’s mantra these days, encompassing everything from security forces who beat up protesting grannies to secret prisons that house political dissidents to the armies of censors who scrub the media and Internet of wayward opinions.

For local officials and government ministries, promising to improve weiwen is the easiest way to wrest cash from the central government. Much of the funding is off the books, disappearing into a black hole of armed agents with no clear bosses and jails that officially don’t exist. Also competing for its share of China’s security budget is the military, which has amplified its saber rattling–against the U.S., Japan and other Asian nations–to earn more influence with the new leadership. “There is no question that China is the biggest security state in the world,” says Guo Xuezhi, a professor at Guilford College in North Carolina whose most recent book is called, straightforwardly, China’s Security State.

There is little indication that Xi and company will loosen the grip of this repressive regime, although they may reorganize the channels of decisionmaking. “The top priority for the Chinese Communist Party is to hold on to its own power, and to do that the party knows that society must be stable,” says Xie Yue, a politics professor at Shanghai’s Tongji University. But in a country light on rule of law, that leaves 1.3 billion Chinese vulnerable to the whims of their leaders. Local cadres know their promotions depend on avoiding unrest, and the easy course is to crack down on any incipient dissent instead of addressing the underlying social problems. “For the sake of stability,” Beijing sociologist Yu Jianrong wrote last year, “[we have] suppressed the livelihood of the people, suppressed human rights, suppressed rule of law, suppressed reform. But stability preservation has not suppressed corruption, nor has it suppressed mining tragedies, nor has it suppressed illegal property demolitions and seizures.”

The Chinese Communist Party has overseen the greatest economic expansion in world history. It has helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Without tying itself in ideological knots, the party embraced a state-sponsored capitalism that is fundamentally opposed to the socialist underpinnings of the People’s Republic. A new covenant was struck in what technically is still a communist state: the government will allow you to become rich, but you must not question the leaders’ political wisdom. It seemed an acceptable pact. After all, isn’t the freedom of a few–the dissidents, the independents, the democrats–worth sacrificing for the overall good of the most populous nation on the planet? Yet as we have learned from modern history, in the longer term, an authoritarian society tends toward less stability the more prosperity its people enjoy.

Now, particularly as China’s economy slows and double-digit growth can no longer propel the nation, its citizens are clamoring for yet another break from the past. Talking over the past couple of months with Chinese of varying backgrounds–academics, entrepreneurs, farmers and even the odd Communist Party diehard–I have been struck most by their shared conviction that China’s political system must fundamentally transform itself or face the kind of social upheaval that swept away the imperial dynasties and ancient warring kingdoms. While many Westerners are buying into the hype of a coming Chinese century, the Chinese I spoke to predicted an altogether more complicated future. In these uncertain times, no wonder the Chinese leadership is striving for weiwen, even if the whole endeavor reeks of desperation. “Rule of law, political transparency–that’s probably a long way away,” admits Fang Ning, director of the institute of political science at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-funded think tank. “But we all know that change will eventually have to come to China.”

Mystery Man

The figure expected to hold China together is Xi (full name pronounced She Jean-ping), a 59-year-old member of the red aristocracy whose father Xi Zhongxun was a trusted lieutenant of Mao’s before he was purged in the early 1960s and later jailed. The younger Xi then traded the lacquered halls of Beijing’s leadership compound for seven years of labor in an agricultural commune. Like other members of a generation displaced by the Cultural Revolution–Mao’s terror-filled 1966–76 political campaign, which upended hundreds of millions of lives–Xi may have developed an allergy to tumultuous times. All the more reason, then, to value weiwen. When colleges reopened in the mid-1970s, Xi studied chemical engineering at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, a breeding ground for future party leaders. His government career has limned the ideological shifts of the Communist Party: he first served as a personal assistant to a Defense Minister, then toiled as a village apparatchik and later as a provincial and municipal chief, riding a wave of foreign investment washing over the country’s prosperous coast.

As Xi climbed the ranks, his pedigree and ability to reach out to feuding factions within the party served him well. His expeditious rise mirrors that of other so-called princelings, whose privileged upbringings as Communist Party scions contrasts with the more hardscrabble backgrounds of the government’s other main faction, made up of Communist Youth League members like Hu.

Beyond the bare bones of his rsum, little is known about the next President. Xi’s father eventually resurrected his career in the late 1970s and helped liberalize China’s economy while also calling for political openness. In 1989, the elder Xi even condemned the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protesters. His son, however, has not openly expressed any taste for reform. His current job requires him to receive world leaders and build the party’s morale and scope. Xi’s public persona, such as it is, hews to the hale and hearty, a reflection of little more than his broad shoulders, ample grin and strong handshake. Some of his personality consists of deflected glory: his second wife is a mascara-loving folksinger in the People’s Liberation Army–quite a contrast to the retiring spouses of other recent Chinese leaders.

While discussing China’s performance during the global financial crisis in a speech in Mexico City in 2009, Xi showed a darker side in a rare strident public moment. “Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us,” he seethed. “First, China does not export revolution. Second, it does not export famine and poverty. And third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?” Still, academics with government ties have told me that Xi has met quietly in recent months with reform-minded intellectuals, including some who have called for the government to face up to the Tiananmen crackdown. He is far more widely traveled than Hu, and his sister, first wife and only child all live abroad. (His daughter is studying at Harvard under an assumed name.)

First Among Equals

Whatever his politics prove to be, Xi will be assuming a position of diminished authority. (Along with the most important title of General Secretary of the Communist Party, Xi will eventually inherit two other top posts: Chairman of the Central Military Commission and President of China, the latter being the least vital of his roles.) Each of the People’s Republic’s four previous leaders has enjoyed less power than his predecessor. Decisionmaking in today’s China is not concentrated in the hands of one man, as in the days of Mao, when policy was made decisively but often impulsively. To rein in such runaway power, major courses of action nowadays depend on a consensus reached by the members of the Politburo Standing Committee. Most of its current nine members (the ones at Tiananmen Square during the Oct. 1 celebrations) will retire when the 18th Party Congress convenes on Nov. 8, and there are rumors that the governing body will be trimmed to seven seats for efficiency’s sake.

Horse trading over who will ascend to the Standing Committee’s vaunted ranks has preoccupied the party for years, pitting current leaders like Hu against party elders like Jiang Zemin, the former President who was the one to anoint Xi in the first place. No one outside the inner party sanctum knows for certain which men (and possibly one woman) will rule China until the new Standing Committee struts across a stage during the Party Congress. But beyond Xi and Li Keqiang, its members will most likely include Zhang Dejiang, a hard-liner who studied economics in North Korea, and Li Yuanchao, a political reformer who underwent midcareer training at Harvard.

Far more than articulating a vision for China’s future, Xi’s job will be to bring these disparate Standing Committee members together, especially at a time when the party is still reeling from a scandal earlier this year that downed Bo Xilai, its most individualistic and charismatic politician. A leftist princeling, Bo has been accused of a slew of crimes, ranging from chronic abuse of power to violating party discipline. In August, his wife was handed a suspended death sentence in the murder last year of a British business consultant. Beyond the lurid headlines, the case tore open the narrative of a seamless political transition and exposed rifts in a Chinese leadership that yearns to portray itself as united. Bo’s most shocking transgression may have been to use an unchecked security apparatus to spy on his political rivals, possibly even wiretapping top leaders. The fallout from Bo’s case appears to have distracted the leadership with byzantine power plays at a time when the country’s slowing economy needs a firm guiding hand.

The recent political chaos–which included Xi’s unexplained public absence for two weeks in September as well as a Ferrari crash that killed the son of a top Hu ally–will only heighten the Communist Party’s desire for control. Bo’s presumed political patron, security chief Zhou Yongkang, who is primarily responsible for having built up the massive weiwen apparatus over the past decade, must retire next month because he will soon turn 70. His replacement may not be promoted to the Standing Committee, which has spurred speculation that the security state might be reined in. But there’s little chance of that, say those who study the weiwen system. “Xi and the new Standing Committee will want to make weiwen decisions themselves instead of having one person [like Zhou] control it,” says China’s Security State author Guo. “The new leaders’ No. 1 criterion for success will still be maintaining stability.”

That repressive instinct was on full display on Oct. 1 when China’s leaders gathered in Tiananmen Square to commemorate the birth of the People’s Republic. To the outside world, Tiananmen evokes a foiled democratic uprising crushed by an authoritarian regime. To the Chinese people, Tiananmen, which means Gate of Heavenly Peace, is the soul of the nation and the refuge of last resort. Last month, a Chinese court sentenced seven people to hard labor in a prison camp. Their crime? Protesting the illegal demolition of their homes or businesses by kneeling briefly in front of the Chinese flag in Tiananmen Square. It was an act of desperation, just one of hundreds of thousands of mass incidents that Xi Jinping will have to face in his coming decade in power. How Xi and his fellow leaders handle that growing dissent will help decide the future of China–and the rest of the world as well.

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