HONG KONG - China watchers were disappointed when Vice President Xi Jinping was
not given an expected nod as the country's next president at last week's annual
meeting of the Communist Party's Central Committee. Also surprising, however,
was the party leadership's insistence on holding closed-door meetings shrouded
in secrecy that were concluded with meaningless communiques reported by the
official Xinhua News Agency.
When the four-day conclave ended on Friday, September 18, there was no press
conference, and none of the 370 members and alternate members attending the
fourth plenum of the 17th Central Committee, held at Beijing's posh Jingxi
Hotel, chose to comment on the weighty matters of state that had been
discussed. Instead, Xinhua spouted the usual platitudes about
maintaining economic stability, continuing the party's fight against
corruption, increasing intra-party democracy and enhancing ethnic harmony.
As for specific plans and goals, there were none. As for a vision of the
country's future, there was nothing. And thus, once again, analysts are left
reading tea leaves as if the world remained in the grips of the Cold War and
Mao Zedong and his counterparts in the former Soviet Union were still going
With China now entering the first rank of nations and seeking a greater voice
in international affairs, China's population of 1.3 billion deserves better. It
is too much to ask that meetings like these be open to media coverage, but
daily briefings are certainly in order and, surely, once the plenum has
concluded, party leaders should face the public, make a statement and take a
We don't need or expect a communicator like US President Barack Obama to
address the Chinese public and the international media after a party meeting.
But it is wrong for a great nation, which China is fast becoming, to offer no
communication at all besides the empty banalities of an official press release.
As the party's general secretary and the nation's paramount leader, President
Hu Jintao is the obvious candidate to lead out after a plenum, but Premier Wen
Jiabao has proven to be a better speaker and also has a common touch
appreciated by ordinary people. A question and answer with Wen would do wonders
to improve the party's image and introduce greater transparency into its
For now, however, doors are closed, mouths are sealed and the tea-leaf readers
are in great demand.
What does it mean, for example, that Xi - widely regarded as Hu's heir apparent
before the plenum - was not appointed vice chairman of the Central Military
Commission (CMC)? After all, when the Central Committee gave that key position
to Hu 10 years ago, the appointment paved the way for him to be selected as
president in 2003.
Xi's failure to secure the post could be a sign that party leaders are still
undecided about who will succeed Hu in 2012 and that a power struggle is under
way. As China prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary of communist rule on
October 1, the ongoing guessing game about its politics suggests that there is
still no coherent system in place to determine succession.
Equally unsettling is the party's endemic corruption at the local level.
Despite various declarations of war on official venality, little progress has
been made. True, some big names have fallen in the crusade against graft over
the past year - former Shenzhen mayor Xu Zhongheng, former Guangdong police
chief Chen Shaoji and vice president of the Supreme People's Court Huang
Songyou, to name a few. In the end, however, these high-profile busts represent
a mere drop in the ocean of corruption in China.
Bringing down select individuals in the party who have abused their power is
easy pickings; tackling a systemic problem that is eating away at China's
remarkable record of economic growth over the last 30 years would be far more
difficult and valuable.
Ironically, the gleeful coverage in mainland media earlier this month of the
life sentences handed down to former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian and his
wife for stealing millions of dollars in state funds while accepting bribes
worth many more millions may come back to haunt Beijing. Chen, a supporter of
Taiwanese independence, has long been a nemesis of China's leadership, but now
he is also a symbol of a Chinese leader at the highest level brought to book
Against this background, the Central Committee's communique promised to
"address both the symptoms and root causes of corruption," but there was no
hint of a plan to support that vague pledge.
The communique also characterized greater internal democracy as "the lifeblood
of the party". Indeed, in theory, genuine competitive elections within the
party could go a long way toward addressing corruption and bringing
transparency to party affairs, but "intra-party democracy" has been a
catchphrase for years at party meetings and only token progress has been made.
That is because there are so many corrupt officials resisting change. So the
vicious circle continues.
In addition, according to Xinhua, the post-conclave bulletin promised to
improve ethnic harmony by launching "massive, in-depth and persistent
educational campaigns on ethnic unity".
This announcement comes in the wake of riots last July in the restive Xinjiang
Uyghur Autonomous Region which were followed this month by bizarre syringe
attacks in the streets of the region's capital, Urumqi. Such campaigns are
unlikely to win over Xinjiang's largely Muslim Uyghur majority, who feel their
culture has been undermined by Beijing and their leaders branded as separatists
The plenum's pledges on the economy were equally underwhelming; platitudes
aside, however, Chinese leaders can take great pride (and relief) in the
country's economic performance. In a year which saw the Western world, led by a
suicidally greedy Wall Street, go into an economic tailspin not seen since the
Great Depression, China is on track for 8% growth, a figure the leadership
feels will keep social unrest at bay and further enhance its international
Beijing's calculations are probably correct. In the end, because of its
enduring economic success as the rest of world faltered, Chinese influence has
never been stronger and continues to grow. Unfortunately, this has done nothing
to improve party plenums, which remain dull exercises in opacity.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at