Here is the story of today’s China in five brief news items:
Story No. 1: For most of the past two weeks, Xi Jinping(習近平), the man tapped to become the new Chinese Communist Party leader, was totally out of sight. That is right. The man designated to become China’s next leader — in October or early November — had disappeared and only resurfaced on Saturday in two photos taken while he was visiting an agricultural college. They were posted online by the official Xinhua news agency. With the Chinese government refusing to comment on his whereabouts or explain his absence, rumors here were flying. Had he fallen ill? Was there infighting in the Communist Party? I have a theory: Xi started to realize how hard the job of running China will be in the next decade and was hiding under his bed. Who could blame him?
Chinese officials take great pride in how they have used the last 30 years to educate hundreds of millions of their people, men and women, and bring them out of poverty. Yet, among my Chinese interlocutors, I find a growing feeling that what has worked for China for the past 30 years — a huge Communist Party-led mobilization of cheap labor, capital and resources — will not work much longer. There is a lot of hope that Xi will bring long-delayed economic and political reforms needed to make China a real knowledge economy, but there is no consensus on what those reforms should be and there are a lot more voices in the conversation. Whatever top-down monopoly of the conversation the Communist Party had is evaporating. More and more, the Chinese people, from microbloggers to peasants to students, are demanding that their voices be heard — and officials clearly feel the need to respond. China is now a strange hybrid — an autocracy with 400 million bloggers, who are censored, feared and listened to all at the same time.
So Xi is certain to make history. He will be the first leader of modern China who will have to have a two-way conversation with the Chinese people while he tries to implement some huge political and economic reforms. The need is obvious.
Story No. 2: In March, Chinese authorities quickly deleted from the blogosphere photos of a fatal Beijing car crash, believed to involve the son of a close ally of President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). The car was a Ferrari. The driver was killed and two young women with him badly injured.
“Photos of the horrific smash in Beijing were deleted within hours of appearing on microblogs and websites,” the Guardian reported. “Even searches for the word ‘Ferrari’ were blocked on the popular Sina Weibo microblog … unnamed sources have identified the driver of the black sports car as the son of Ling Jihua (令計劃), who was removed as head of the party’s general office of the central committee this weekend.”
It was the latest in a string of incidents spotlighting the lavish lifestyles of the Communist Party elite.
Chinese authorities are so sensitive to these stories because they are the tip of an iceberg — an increasingly corrupt system of interlocking ties between the Communist Party and state-owned banks, industries and monopolies, which allow certain senior officials, their families and “princelings” to become hugely wealthy and to even funnel that wealth out of China.
“Marx said the worst kind of capitalism is a monopolistic capitalism, and Lenin said the worst kind of monopolistic capitalism is state monopolistic capitalism — and we are practicing it to the hilt,” a Chinese Internet executive remarked to me.