New China Edict: No More Pomp and Circumstance

The official cars parked outside the Great Hall of the People, during the closing session of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on Nov, 14, 2012 in Beijing Photograph by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

For many years top Chinese politicians have lived a bit like rock stars, without the paparazzi. Never mind that few of the political elite have swagger like Jagger, China’s leaders have long enjoyed walking red carpets, waving before enthusiastic (if preorganized) crowds, traveling with large entourages, and speaking from stages adorned with crimson banners and lavish floral arrangements. On overseas trips, busloads of Chinese students are often brought in to make photogenic, adoring greetings at airports.

Now these perks are being assailed. According to a statement released on Tuesday by China’s governing 25-member Politburo, red carpets, expensive banners, traffic blockades, and other varieties of ostentation should be eliminated “in order to remain close with the public.” As reported by China’s state-run Xinhua News, the statement continued: “The style of officials, particularly top officials, has an important impact upon the style of the Party and the style of the government and even on the whole of society.”

The attack on official decorum comes at a time when Xi Jinping, who was appointed Communist Party chairman in November, has been giving speeches about “national renewal” and promising a crackdown on corruption and official misconduct. “We must be vigilant,” he told top party members last month, comparing China’s runaway graft with “worms breeding in decaying matter.”

While getting the rock star treatment on the road is hardly officialdom’s most offending behavior, Xi’s words indicate he believes the Communist Party needs to set a new tone, including attempting to rein in elaborate displays of wealth and privilege. As writer Evan Osnos suggested in a recent New Yorker blog post, noting the more colloquial and populist style of Xi’s first speech after his big promotion, even unelected Chinese politicians seem lately to be more sensitive to public opinion, especially in the age of camera phones and Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of  tweeting.

But will a makeover campaign lead to more substantive changes, or will it end with scrapping red carpets? Zhang Jian, a professor of government at Peking University, says his reaction to the Politburo’s statement was both amused and skeptical. “No traffic motorcades? No expensive greeting banners? It seems like it’s just changing the clothes of the new leadership. But I don’t think it illustrates anything we can interpret as the beginning of a big substantive change.”

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