Chairman who?

China has a new set of leaders. Do the Chinese care?

November 19, 2012
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The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China has drawn to a close, and a new set of unfamiliar grey bureaucrats now run the country. For a week, the Chinese media was full of predictably soporific reports on the "shiba da" (the “eighteenth big,” as the Congress is known). News of the important decisions was buried amidst incessant talk of “optimisation,” “scientific development” and “civilized and harmonious” matters.

The contrast between the Chinese leadership transition and the US presidential election is stark, and has been remarked upon here in China. It is hard to get excited about the shift to a new generation of leaders when no one really knows much about them or what they stand for. I have lived in China for four years, I understand Chinese, I follow the Chinese news and I take an interest in current affairs, and yet I have never heard of any of the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the committee of nine people which constitutes the highest decision-making body in China. During this Congress, seven of the committee’s nine members stepped down and were replaced, including Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, the president and prime minister.

I first heard of the country’s new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, less than a year ago, when he began to be widely touted as Hu’s replacement. I still have little idea who he really is and what, if anything, he stands for. I am sure that is the case for most Chinese as well. Apart from Hu and Wen, the only Chinese politician I have heard much about in the last few years is Bo Xilai. He languishes in prison, accused of abetting the murder of a British businessman.

Some have suggested that China’s current political system only lets dull people rise to leadership positions. Political clashes and contests over policy usually take place behind closed doors. This means that the politicians who have just taken control of the world’s second largest economy and most populous country are still an enigma to most people, both within China and abroad. This could be seen as progress in comparison to the days when the supreme leader’s personality and charisma were everything, and a change in the leader entailed a seismic shift in the entire system.

What do ordinary Chinese make of the leadership transition? Most give the impression of being indifferent. The only time I ever heard anyone in Beijing even mention the Congress without me prompting them was when a taxi driver lamented the closure of some of the roads in the city centre. Although the effects of the change in leadership will gradually make themselves felt throughout the country, China’s “laobaixing” (“old hundred surnames,” meaning ordinary folk) will presumably have no greater say in the process than they ever have done.

Many are proud of China’s achievements. They are happy about the rising living standards and wealth of the majority, and feel that the party’s rule ensures growth and stability. Yet there is also widespread anger at the corruption of those in power, and dissatisfaction with the pollution and stressfulness in urban areas and the continuing poverty and substandard public services in the countryside.

Some of these problems may be addressed more seriously under the new leadership, but few are holding their breath. For the foreseeable future, most Chinese will simply go on keeping their heads down and working, while waiting patiently for change to come from above.