The Chinese Party Congress: For New Ideas, Look to the Younger Guys

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Hu Jintao's opening address revealed just how closely the Communist Party is still wedded to Mao Zedong's legacy. But the party's next generation after Hu may have different ideas.

xes_23b372fc53e582d49b4aba43f80c946b-615.jpgDoes the subtle and skillful Wang Yang represent the next generation of Communist Party leadership?

The conclusion of the party congress' opening ceremony and Hu Jintao's keynote speech is followed by days of breakout sessions among the provincial congresses and their delegates. Theoretically, it is a period during which every provincial delegate is supposed to studiously review Hu's speech and learn the key concepts. But in reality, these are occasions for schmoozing and to take stock of several rising stars in the Communist Party firmament, some of whom will soon earn the rarified status of a Politburo or standing committee member.

First, pre-congress speculation that the Communist Party is prepared to throw Mao Zedong under the bus seems to be just that -- speculation. Not only did Hu's speech invoke the Great Helmsman again, a high-level official at the influential state think tank Chinese Academy of Social Sciences did not mince words when he publicly stated that "Mao Zedong thought will always be the ideological guidance of the party. His place in history is firmly enshrined in the party's constitution." 

Mao may live on existentially, but the Chinese are more lost than ever on the path forward. Even Hu himself seems rather puzzled -- spouting the line, "we will neither walk down the close, rigid old path, nor will we change banners and walk down a crooked path" -- that either left many mocking it or scratching their heads. Call it triangulation Chinese style, which recalls Deng Xiaoping's formulation that the party can't move too far left or too far right, and must find its own middle way. It seemed a spirited defense of Deng's defining pragmatism that called for "crossing the river by grasping for stones," a reference that many Chinese Web users picked up. In short, Hu's position is that he has no position. After a decade in power, Hu merely repackages the ideas of the last century for a country that no longer resembles its former self. No wonder many Chinese bemoan the dearth of visionaries in China's political class -- Deng was China's Steve Jobs and Hu is his Tim Cook.

black audis.pngA fleet of black Audis, the preferred ride of Chinese authorities, carrying party congress delegates as they attempt to exit the venue. The image carries the wry caption, "The best Audi commercial of the year." (Weibo via Helen Gao)

Beyond the art of wringing meaning out of indecipherable political language, the Guangdong provincial congress received more attention than others from Hong Kong and Western media. That's because everyone wanted to get impressions of Wang Yang, the party secretary of Guangdong who may or may not get the promotion into the standing committee. The secretary has captured unusual attention.

Wang is viewed as the newest torchbearer in a long list of Chinese reformers that includes Zhao Ziyang and Zhu Rongji -- both of whom governed crucial coastal provinces. And Wang himself is reputed to be more "Western" in his political personality, not least because he has let his hair grey naturally rather than suppress age with CCP-certified hair dye. Perhaps going grey is the preferred signal from one reformer to another on where they stand. Here is former Premier Zhu Rongji at the congress, evidently not shy about his silver locks:

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Even Wang's style is reportedly straight-forward and frank. According to Malcolm Moore of Britain's The Telegraph, who had been live-tweeting the Guangdong delegate meeting, Wang had a sarcastic wit about him. When one effusive delegate proclaimed that he was so excited to be at the party congress, Wang quipped that perhaps it would help if he sat down. At times, Moore described Wang as outright bored as delegates droned on. Wang even effectively parried tough questions with a practiced fluency that suggests he's not the robotic automaton when it comes to press conferences. For instance, when a reporter from Japan's NHK asked him about Sino-Japan relations, he first dodged a direct answer by saying the foreign ministry has issued formal statements nearly every single day, and that should be referred to as the official position. Then he followed up with this:

The Chinese and Japanese people have a long history of friendship [...] for instance, Japan was influenced by Han culture and many friendly Japanese visitors came to China. And Sun Yat-sen, who is from Guangdong, received a lot of support from his Japanese friends during the most challenging times of his revolution. I believe, if the Japanese government can approach the Sino-Japan dispute in the right way, a return to Sino-Japan friendliness is well worth it.

This is a man who clearly understands that his province depends overwhelmingly on foreign investment, including Japanese auto manufacturing plants. His response was measured, while still subtly put the blame on the Japanese government to align with what the Beijing mandarins want to hear.

Wang represents a younger generation of Chinese politicians who are perhaps more comfortable in their own skin and less concerned about political orthodoxy and ideological rigidity. For Wang, it may simply be the Guangdong influence, which always seemed to have tilted closer to the "Hong Kong way" than the "Beijing way." Yet most of the younger cohort, including Wang, will likely have to wait their turn to reach the top of the political hierarchy.

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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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