At a little before noon on November 15, I was sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Beijing, gazing at a TV screen broadcasting the first appearance of China's new Politburo. As the seven men walked out onto a stage in the Great Hall of the People before a large crowd of journalists and observers, I was the sole person watching in a busy public place.
Others around me, mostly Chinese, acted with complete indifference. No one stopped to watch what was happening. No one responded when the new Party Secretary, Xi Jinping, made his first remarks as leader. It was as though this event was about a place or a group that had nothing to do with any of them.
Ironically, after lambasting corruption, the second thing Xi said that day was that his new leadership would need to reconnect with the people. And yet most of those in China who I talked to in the few weeks I was there before the Congress spoke about the imminent power transfer with almost no curiosity whatsoever. 'It's nothing to do with our daily lives', one said. 'They fixed this up months ago', said another.
Chinese people talked about their own leaders as though they were inhabitants of some remote universe, people whose words and actions were as significant to them as extra-terrestrial beings.
One of the great tasks Xi and the small group around him have got is to reach through to these people, demonstrating that China's leaders are relevant and that what these leaders do matters for the lives of ordinary people and for the well-being of the country.
This is a tough ask. In democratic politics, the outcomes of elections are at least celebrated with the cheers and happiness of the winners and the misery of their defeated opponents. Most elections, like the one in the US which preceded China's leadership transition by a few days, culminate in a large and public electoral moment when the winner is finally clear and everyone can move on.
In China's leadership transition, the strategy has been different. For stability, and to avoid social contention, the whole process has been managed within a tightly controlled elite. Negotiations and discussions happened behind closed doors among a tiny cabal. The mysterious reappearance of the 87 year old former president Jiang Zemin on the final day of the full Congress only underlined how much the approval, informal pressure and networks of former elite leaders still mattered.
So that 'electoral' moment, a moment of legitimisation when the new leaders are elevated, or current leaders given a fresh mandate, is something the new rulers of the Communist Party of China don't have. Their legitimisation has come through elite, intra Party processes which are opaque, even to insiders. The question of why certain people succeeded in getting onto the Politburo Standing Committee and others don't haunts all discussions of these new figures. Most of the time, trying to justify their appearance boils down to imprecise explanations based on their patronage networks or their factional allegiance.
To fulfill Xi's comments about speaking and being relevant to the larger society, the new leaders are going to have to start on a careful campaign of retrospective legitimisation. Chinese people don't feel much connection with these new leaders and don't have a clear idea where they will eventually take the country. For most, the feelings of alienation from politics are offset against the fact that they can see their lives getting better, and within this broadly stable, increasingly prosperous environment, not having a direct say in who rules them is not so important. A recent Pew survey showed that 92 per cent of Chinese believed their lives were better than those their parents had lived.
Perhaps we can best understand Xi's words as a clear sign that the Party knows in its heart that this situation will not always prevail. China aims to double its GDP in the next eight years. It will become a middle income country. Growth rates will inevitably fall, and the sources of growth will come not so much from capital investment but from efficiency in productivity and labour. In that event, governance of companies, and society, will become critical. The sort of predictability that genuine rule of law gives will be desperately needed. Double digit growth will become a thing of the past.
As China moves along this difficult path, it knows that the people's demands towards government will become much higher, that the need to mobilise important sectors of the population will be critical. As the going gets tougher, a Party which is regarded as aloof, remote and elitist can easily become a target of attack and a source of anger and resentment.
If that is really what Xi as alluding too, then it is good that the Party elite have started to think hard about this question. At least they are getting prepared for the day when public engagement in politics will be much deeper, and when a leadership succession which effects a fifth of humanity attracts more notice than the one foreigner standing a busy hotel lobby, while those most directly affected by it simply move around, indifferent to what is happening on the TV screen.
Kerry Brown is director of the China Studies Centre and Professor of Chinese Politics at the University of Sydney, and Team Leader of the Europe China Research and Advice Network.
Originally published by The Lowy Institute publication The Interpreter. Reproduced with permission.
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