The Chinese Party Congress: Day One

Artifice and pageantry were roundly mocked online.

The political event opened yesterday as more than 2,000 delegates from across the country filled the cavernous Great Hall of the People. The keynote was President Hu Jintao's final major political report, a speech that dragged on for 100 minutes with colorless recitation, though he reportedly went off script a few times. The address itself, which many have already analyzed, I will get to later. First, the stagecraft. 

For every major Communist Party occasion, most of all the congress, several set pieces must be present: podium wrapped in flowers, minorities in their ethnic garb, sprinkling of female delegates, sleeping octogenarians, and bored leaders. The congress' opening ceremony did not disappoint on any of these fronts. 

Podium with flowers!
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Minorities AND women!
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Sleeping octogenarians! 
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Bored leaders!
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Courtesy of the China Media Project, those images of former President Jiang Zemin wishing he were somewhere else became an instant Internet meme. It was of course also swiftly taken down by the censors after appearing on Weibo. 

I don't blame him. It was just as soul-crushing watching the live stream of the speech. And judging by the flood of Chinese reporters who rushed out of the event and fought over the prepared transcripts suggests that many in that hall weren't paying much attention, either. In fact, the scene inside the hall was reminiscent of a typical undergraduate class in a Chinese university, where students are falling asleep or texting. No matter, the professor marches on. 

So what was the general reaction then?

Here I turn to Helen Gao, who used to blog on China on this very site but has since returned to Beijing (and who also supplied some of the above photos). She sent me some dispatches after having endured the CCTV wrap-up of the event. Other than the usual endless shots of the panoply of leaders, the broadcast just happened upon "a delegate named Guo Mingyi who, with red eyes and glasses pushed to his forehead, said that he finished listening to the report with tears in his eyes." Surprising given that Hu is one of the most emotionless Chinese leaders in recent memory. 

The official Weibo account of the state-run People's Daily was also busy tweeting political neologisms to capture the ideological essence of the Hu report:

--"eight upholds": must uphold the primary position of the people; must uphold the liberalization and development of society's productive forces; must uphold reform and opening up; must uphold the protection of social fairness and justice; must uphold walking down the path of common prosperity; must uphold the promotion of social harmony; must uphold peaceful development; must hold the party's leadership. 

--"five in one": comprehensively integrate building economy, building political system, building culture, building society, and building ecological soundness into a unifying arrangement (very Confucian). 

--"four senses": strengthen the sense of urgency; strengthen the sense of innovation; strengthen the sense of purpose; strengthen the sense of mission. 

The official tweets' earnestness sounded nothing like what actual Chinese people were tweeting during the event. Here's a sampling of the snark:

Laoxushiping: Watching the 18th PC live on TV, and seeing so many energetic-looking leaders with sleek, dark hair sitting on the stage strategizing China's future, how could I not be confident?

Cangxindege: Using imported hair product, consuming special food and breathing filtered air, they are elite human beings indeed! I am absolutely confident.

Yamoli: What brand of hair dye do you think the high majesties use? I also want it, but doctors say they may contain cancer-causing elements. Why are the high majesties not afraid?

 
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No sartorial rogue to be found here, though Wu Bangguo -- the head of the National People's Congress and fourth from the left -- has decided to take his chances with a blue tie. The pageantry's self-seriousness drew mockery from ordinary Chinese, especially now that the Chinese public can easily compare it to the projected images from the just-concluded U.S. election. Indeed, President Obama's victory remained the leading trending topic on Weibo yesterday -- not the congress. 

But do not fear, following the Scientific Development Concept will lead to splendid achievement for China, as one People's Daily editorial breathlessly proclaimed. Indeed, unwaveringly pursuing socialism with Chinese characteristics is the only course for China, as Hu reiterated again, echoing themes that he affirmed in July. The only problem is the Chinese public no longer has any idea what socialism with Chinese characteristics means nor how to follow it. 
Presented by

Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

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