There was no drum roll, no white smoke from a chimney, and no ceremonial passing of the envelope, but the suspense was almost unbearable.
On November 15, Chinese Internet users, domestic and foreign media alike waited with baited breath for new members of China’s ultra-powerful Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) to meet the press in the Great Hall of the People.
Yet at 11:30 a.m., 30 minutes past the appointed hour, there was no sign of them.
“I don’t dare to go to the bathroom,” tweeted Liu Chun, a vice president of Internet company Sohu, in anxious anticipation of the line-up. “I’m refreshing my Weibo once every second. Please come out!” wrote an Internet user on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter.
In anxious boredom, users joked that the s-elected were engaging in a good last-minute wrestle or a friendly game of rock-paper-scissors to determine the final line-up. Some called for commentators on China Central Television, who struggled to fill the time with largely inane chatter, to start doing a “Gangnam-style” dance to keep their millions of viewers entertained.
Hopes for reform dashed
The moment of collective release finally came at 11:55 a.m., Beijing time, when the Selected Seven emerged with almost uniform dyed coifs and black suits. (At least one member, some observers noted, sported a blue instead of a red tie.) The line-up was not a surprise to readers of foreign media, as the list was leaked weeks ago.
However, Chinese Internet users hoping for more aggressive political reforms in China or a liberalization of media controls were intensely disappointed. “Out of all the rumored permutations, the worst one has come true. Everyone go have lunch, nothing more to see here,” tweeted a former technology company executive. “A total defeat for reformists,” declared another user.
Many noted the absence of Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang, both seen as protégés of President Hu Jintao and potential reformers. One Weibo user wrote, “The two reformers [Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang] both lost out, and the conservatives from [former President] Jiang Zemin’s clique won a decisive victory. Disappointed!”
The promotion of Liu Yunshan, the propaganda chief who oversaw the tightening of media and Internet controls over the last decade, indicated to many that such policies are likely to continue. “The guy from the Ministry of Truth made it? Going to be another lost decade,” tweeted a Weibo user. “A propaganda master in the PSC will make things difficult for media going forward,” agreed another.
Although most of the new PSC members have plenty of experience managing economically vibrant coastal provinces and municipalities, the stock market did not react positively to the perceived new conservatism at the helm. “Who won? It is quite obvious. Let’s short the market,” tweeted one Weibo user, and many investors agreed. The Shanghai Composite Index fell by 1.2% on Thursday following the announcement of the new PSC line-up.
Winners and losers
Some conservatives gloated at the perceived victory. Professor Zhang Hongliang, a prominent contributor to the Maoist website Utopia, tweeted on Weibo, “Goodbye, Wang Yang! Right-wingers [i.e. reformists], don’t cry, you lost!” Zhang and his supporters seem to reason that the sacrifice of fallen Chongqing chief Bo Xilai—often seen as a standard-bearer for the conservatives—was a worthwhile one if it in fact helped pave the way for a PSC line-up that excluded potential reformers.
But one Weibo user cautioned Zhang not to reach a hasty conclusion since the ideological leanings of the new PSC members are not exactly transparent: “Professor Zhang and those who declare victory for a particular ideology will shed tears in the future. If you think this is a contest, then it’s not a contest of ideologies, but of power–the left [conservatives] did not win and the right [reformists] did not lose. The winners are on the stage, and the losers are in prison.”
Another user reasoned that the line-up reflected the conflicting views of political reform in Chinese society today. “There is not enough pressure from the bottom up [for reforms], so any hopes for top-down reforms is just wishful thinking. That’s the price we will pay in this generation,” he wrote.
Better luck in five years?
Some preserved hope that the reformers will have another shot at the next Party Congress to be held in five years, when most of the current conservative PSC members are expected to step down due to age limit of 68.
“Other than Xi and Li, others may only stay for one term. This is a transitional team. Maybe they will prepare the groundwork in the first five years, and start to implement the ideas after five years,” tweeted a hopeful user. But he also posed the question, “Would people be that patient?”
Another was not so optimistic, lamenting, “Every team is supposed to be ‘transitional,’ but only God knows what we are transitioning to.”
To some Chinese observers who compared the American and Chinese political systems, it was not so bad that the public was spared the gory details of power struggles and unsightly character assassinations. One Weibo user concluded:
“The power transition in the U.S. and China were the most intensely watched events in the world in 2012. The Chinese transition is obviously more harmonious than the American one. Half of Americans believe they lost after the U.S. elections, and some are so angry that they want to secede from the union and believe that America has no future. But most Chinese people think the outcome is not bad after the transition here, and they can go about their business more reassured and with more confidence in China’s future. That’s the difference between a rising sun and a setting sun.”
Others, however, have grown tired of watching a black box. One user wrote, “It’s only the outcome of a power struggle among various interest groups. These seven people will decide the future of China in the next decade but the people do not have any power to evaluate them. It is very sad. Everything was decided under the table. Isn’t it like the mafia?” Another agreed, “No matter the outcome, the Chinese people lost when the line-up was revealed like this—the people were just spectators.”