China’s Leaders Fear a Ping-Pong Counterrevolution

If you’re looking for insight into the Chinese Communist Party as it undergoes a once-per-decade over the next week, slip into the back seat of a Beijing taxi and try to roll down the windows.

Odds are, unless you’ve just hired an unlicensed cab, the handles will be as I found them on my Wednesday ride from Beijing’s airport: disabled, the handles removed from the cranks so that the windows can’t be opened.

The goal of this mechanical amputation, as outlined in a recent directive sent out by Beijing’s Transportation Administration to the city’s 70,000 taxi drivers, is to prevent passengers from spreading anti-revolutionary messages by tossing them from the taxi windows during the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which began Thursday morning. Leaflets are the obvious -- and apparently legitimate -- concern when it comes to rear-window counterrevolution. But the actual target of the taxi directive may be even more elusive; drivers are also warned to “Look for passengers who intend to spread messages by carrying balloons that bear slogans or pingpong balls bearing reactionary messages.”

Such fear of counterrevolution may seem strange in a country that has experienced a decade of almost incomprehensible growth. From 2002 to 2011, per capita Chinese gross domestic product quintupled. But as has been well-documented, the decade’s economic progress has been accompanied by growing inequality and serious environmental degradation that have led to tens of thousands of protests and other so-called mass incidents.

Credibility Undermined

So, too, a perpetual parade of news stories about government corruption and influence-peddling from the lowest rungs of local government to the Communist Party’s very highest reaches has further undermined the credibility, if not outright legitimacy, of the party. In the days following the New York Times’s Oct. 25 investigation into the considerable fortunes accumulated by members of Premier Wen Jiabao’s family, a common response I heard from Chinese with access to the story was that “only foreigners can be surprised by this.” (The Times site was blocked in China within hours of the story being published, just as Bloomberg’s site has been banned since June, when it published an expose on the family fortune of Xi Jinping, China’s president-in-waiting.) On China’s thriving microblogs, discussion of Wen was strictly censored, but discussion of other corruption cases continued unencumbered and as bitter as ever.

Official talk of such corruption made an early appearance at the Party Congress. The first major order of business at Thursday morning’s opening ceremony was outgoing President Hu Jintao’s 100-minute work report to the assembled 2,300 delegates. It was, by and large, a colorless speech befitting a leader who has spent a decade successfully cloaking his emotions, beliefs and biases from his people. Outside of Hu’s immediate circle of power, the vast majority of Chinese know little more about the man today than they did in 2002, the year he became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the nation’s highest office (he added the presidency to his portfolio in 2003).

So it was notable when the otherwise dour president raised his voice to declare that the failure to defeat corruption “could prove fatal to the party and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.” In light of recent scandals and revelations (such as those about Wen’s family), Hu encouraged officials to exercise discipline over their “family and staff.”

Deeply Entrenched

Those Chinese who bothered to pay attention to Hu’s address would be justified in wondering why their president saved his public indignation for a valedictory speech delivered only days before he will relinquish power. A probable answer, unsettling to those with hopes for the future of the Chinese Communist Party, is that corruption is so deeply entrenched in China that Hu had little choice but to tolerate it in order to govern effectively.

Even today, more than three decades into China’s economic resurgence, the state-owned sector continues to account for more than half of GDP -- and, almost certainly, more than half of all corruption cases. With notable exceptions, however, most of those corruption cases involve lower-level officials, not senior figures who control the patronage and cash necessary to make things happen in China.

In every country, politics is the art of balancing competing interests -- whether those interests belong to individuals, parties, corporations or other types of organizations. Even in the cleanest, most democratic countries, politics must occasionally be done out of sight of the public. What makes China different is that its citizenry isn’t just ignorant about what happens out of the public eye; more often than not, they don’t even know which people are in the back room, and what they might represent.

Consider Xi Jinping, who will take the position of party general secretary as well as president in coming days. He was named vice president, and thus the all-but-certain successor to Hu, in 2008. Rumor has it that he was a compromise candidate between the faction represented by Hu and that of his presidential predecessor, Jiang Zemin. But what those factions represent -- politically and economically -- is a matter of speculation. Media-connected Chinese citizens have a better idea of who financed Barack Obama’s campaign -- and what Obama intends to do with the next four years -- than they do about Xi, his patrons and his plans for the next decade.

Ten years ago when income inequality and other social problems weren’t as divisive as they are today, public irritation at the secrecy surrounding the selection of leaders was more muted. But the increasing coverage of corruption in the Chinese press over the last decade, combined with the rise of freewheeling though still-censored microblogs, has acclimated an educated and technologically connected middle class to the idea that it can publicly rail against corruption with little consequence beyond having its tweets deleted.

Slow Acclimation

For China’s ruling elites, however, acclimation to the public’s demand for transparency has come much more slowly, if at all. Censors have been quickly deleting microblogged speculation about membership on the new Politburo Standing Committee, to be unveiled next week. The potential harm of such tweets is difficult to imagine, but perhaps the party elders involved simply aren’t prepared for the Chinese public to develop even a partial understanding of the bargains being cut and of who will benefit from them.

No doubt, the security overkill that has cast a paranoid pall over everything from taxi doors to the Internet will succeed in cutting off any disruptions in the peaceful (for the party elders) transfer of power. But in the long-term, it’s unlikely that Xi Jinping and China’s new leadership will find much success in continuing to restrict China’s media-savvy citizens from understanding how their government works and demanding more of a voice in determining what it does.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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