18th congress: China at crossroads

Every academic, every commentator, every blogger here speaks of a China at crossroads.

Report by BBC Online

Ordinary people in shops and offices tell you the same thing; though perhaps they get it from the commentators and bloggers, of course.

What does it mean, in practical terms? Essentially, it means that no-one, not even the self-appointed experts, knows what is going to happen — except things are unlikely to remain the same.

All we do know is that a new leadership is about to take over.

Like the two previous leaderships during the past 20 years, they will no doubt start off much like their predecessors, but will soon establish a distinctive character of their own.

After the last leadership change-over in 2002, for instance, the pattern at first seemed unchanged. China was regarded in the West as basically friendly.
The two top figures from the outgoing leadership, President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji seemed relaxed and easygoing.

When they went abroad they were jokey, inclined to dive into crowds and all too willing to join in karaoke if there was a chance.

Since then, though, we have had 10 years of the more stiff and serious Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. China’s economy and power have grown hugely, and many more people in the West have begun to see it as a threat.

An angry form of Chinese nationalism surfaced on a big scale in 1999, when Nato bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. It is a force which the Hu Jintao leadership has consciously encouraged ever since.

And yet there is a different and no less important force which the Hu-Wen years have fostered less deliberately. Those years have been a period of extraordinary improvement in personal freedom in China.

The result has been that many younger people in the big cities feel they scarcely occupy the same country as the old, uptight Communist leadership. To them, it seems increasingly irrelevant to their lives and futures.

We saw exactly the same process in the old Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, as Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika took effect.

China today is certainly not the same as Russia, Hungary, Poland or Czechoslovakia 23 years ago, but there are some startling similarities.

In District 798 in Beijing, for instance, which was once a complex of armaments factories and has been turned into a sprawling colony for artists and art galleries, the only reminders of Communism are the irreverent paintings and sculptures making fun of Mao Zedong and his acolytes.

Precisely similar things started to appear for sale in Moscow’s Ismailova market at the end of the 1980s, and their equivalent in Prague, Warsaw and Budapest —only they made fun of Stalin.

Much more important, the conversations in the cafes of District 798 now are immensely reminiscent of the old days of the break-up of the Soviet empire.
“I don’t feel the government has anything to do with me at all,” a smartly dressed young woman told me, as she drank a caffe latte. “It’s another world as far as I’m concerned.”

And indeed the stiff, awkward rows of Communist Party delegates sitting bolt upright in their identical black suits, white shirts and red ties, only worn on big occasions like this, applauding their leader at specified moments in his speech, scarcely seem to belong on the same planet as the relaxed, Westernised artists strolling round District 798.

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