China Bans Long, Boring Speeches: Will This Promote More Openness?

Or will it simply burnish Beijing's domestic image?


A paramilitary police officer collects the Chinese national flag in Tiananmen Square. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

Xi Jinping wants to make government a bit less inscrutable.

That's welcome news for anyone who slogged through outgoing Chinese president Hu Jintao's speech to the 18th Party Congress, a 100-minute performance that literally put delegates to sleep. Hu's remarks are a common feature of Chinese politics, where officials routinely go heavy on stagecraft and light on substance. Bureaucrats are especially fond of soporific addresses laden with florid rhetoric. It's as much an affectation as it is a way for fellow elites to fit in.

But Xi, who last month was confirmed as Hu's successor, vowed today to end the overproduced extravagance of official behavior. Under Xi's tenure, government leaders will no longer receive red-carpet treatment at public events. Gigantic entourages, banquets, and welcome banners are to disappear from visits and functions. There will be no more welcoming committees of happily weeping children or students bearing flowers. And meetings will be a lot shorter, mainly because Xi will be banning "empty talk" with all haste.

China's new leader may just be putting his own stamp on party style, but he himself is a welcome embodiment of it. Xi speaks relatively unaccented Mandarin -- a big deal in a country whose diversity often makes it hard for people to understand each other. And he exudes a relaxed attitude that defies the buttoned-up, robotic personality common to top-level bureaucrats.

Curtailing the trappings of government life is meant to fix popular -- and dangerous -- public perceptions about graft. Per Reuters:

The party, which has shown no sign of giving up its tight grip on power, has struggled to contain public anger at a seemingly endless stream of corruption scandals, particularly when officials are seen as abusing their posts to amass wealth.

Polishing the party's image might give Beijing a marginal increase in control. But it's too early to say whether making officials behave more simply will actually lead to true public accountability, the Council on Foreign Relations' Adam Segal told me in a phone interview.

"In some ways, you could say it dampens any impetus for reform, because the party can say, 'We can reform ourselves. We can rein ourselves in -- we don't need any change,'" said Segal. "There is a long tradition of Chinese leaders trying to show how ascetic and connected to the people they are."