China’s leadership transition cloaked in mystery

BEIJING — With cameras rolling, the reporter from state television’s new “Are You Happy?” segment marched up to a Shanghai street sweeper in a turquoise jumpsuit and thrust his microphone forward.

The workman froze for a moment, mouth agape at the reporter’s questions about his quality of life. He makes three times the salary he did five years ago, he acknowledged. But he also alluded to China’s inflation, and added that there was a gap in his social security coverage.

“I hope the leaders would help people like me,” said the street sweeper, who like so many others is a migrant from the hinterland. “I believe things will improve, slowly and gradually. The government has always emphasized ordinary people’s interests.”

Two days after Americans vote for president, China will launch its own leadership transition at a major Communist Party gathering. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao will step down from their party posts after a decade in power and hand the reins to Vice President Xi Jinping, Vice Premier Li Keqiang and a new generation of officials.

In China, unlike in the U.S., there’s no doubt that the incumbent party will continue its rule. Nevertheless, the Communist Party is seeking to shore up its popular support, rally its base of 80 million and somehow give average people a sense of inclusion in a secretive process that unfolds without their input.


Correspondents interviewed 3,500 people for the “Are You Happy?” segments, including a bodybuilder, a train mechanic and college girls in tracksuits.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Each day brings new media coverage highlighting how different citizens are “welcoming the ‘Big 18,’” shorthand here for the 18th party congress. On the Beijing subway, videos this week featured seniors in a park performing patriotic dances with Communist Party flags. Another news report took note of students in Wuhan who laid out a huge domino display spelling out “Big 18.”

Conspicuously absent from the coverage is any direct mention of exactly who is being welcomed or what their specific plans are. Much of that, it seems, is still being hashed out behind closed doors. So instead of making promises, China’s Communists have employed a variant of the American standby, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

The party can point to many accomplishments: China’s gross domestic product has grown fivefold since 2002, the percentage of the population living on less than $2 a day has dropped from more than 51% to less than 30%, Beijing successfully hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, and the country avoided many of the ill effects of the global financial crisis.

But each day also brings fresh reminders of problems: slowing growth, environmental degradation, the continued dominance of state-run enterprises in the economy, a housing market out of balance and tensions with neighboring countries. Perhaps most worrying for the leadership is the drumbeat of dispatches — from Chinese bloggers, foreign news websites and the state-run media itself — about corruption by Communist Party brass.

On Friday, Chinese leaders woke to a New York Times story about how Premier Wen’s family controls assets worth at least $2.7 billion.

The newspaper’s website was promptly blocked in China. On the same day, state-run media announced that Bo Xilai, a disgraced official accused of bribery and helping to cover up a murder, had been kicked out of the legislature, a prelude to a criminal trial.

Countering the negative news falls to people like Wang Chen, director of the State Internet Information Office and deputy director of the party’s propaganda department.

On Wednesday, he summoned provincial propaganda officials as well as the heads of key news websites and urged them to “create a positive public opinion and atmosphere” for the congress, the People’s Daily newspaper reported.

Yet the spread of the Internet means managing the message is harder than ever. More than 500 million Chinese are now online.

“In Mao’s era, it was much easier to control how information was being spread,” said Zhang Lifan, a historian who has studied the Communist Party. “Now the messages are coming from bottom to top, not top to bottom. … They are trying to play catch-up.”

Part of the difficulty is that propaganda officials must apparently avoid discussing not only what the new leaders will do, but even who they might be. State-run outlets have special sections devoted to the party congress, but they don’t explicitly mention that Xi has for years been on track to take over for Hu, or that Li has been tapped to step into the role being vacated by Wen.

Murkier yet is what policies they and the rest of the new Politburo Standing Committee might endorse. Average citizens who follow politics say they have little idea about the agenda.

“I watch the news carefully, and I can tell that Xi and Li will be among the next leaders — these people are always attending important meetings, and traveling overseas, so I can grasp this even if they don’t directly say so,” said Zhang Kedong, 70, a retiree from Sichuan province who rested on a bench Thursday as he took a break from his tour of Beijing. “But we don’t spend much time trying to figure out what kind of people they are, what they will do.”

Many ordinary Chinese express little interest in the proceedings of the Big 18. “I know Xi’s going to be the leader, but I don’t know much about him,” said a sophomore at Beijing Union University. “The issues they are dealing with don’t have much relation to us college students.”

Yet others with only a vague grasp of the details of the party congress hold out hope that a new group of leaders will somehow improve things for them.

Down the street from where Zhang was sitting, retired coal miner Pu Rubin, 62, and his wife, Qi Jinglan, 56, were relaxing. The couple had traveled 700 miles east to the capital from Ningxia, so that Pu could receive treatment for a kidney ailment.

Pu said the cost of medical care outstrips his income. At the local hospital, he’s constantly encountering confusing rules about how much he’s going to have to pay, and how much the government will reimburse. Now he’s borrowing money to cover his treatments.

“The party and the government issue good regulations, but the people who implement them are not doing a good job,” Pu said.

“Am I happy? I am happy, but I have this kidney problem. If the leaders can talk about raising the rate for medical reimbursements, then I’ll be really happy.”

Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.