China looks to usher in the new generation of Communist leaders

America is not the only global superpower picking a new leader this week

With its glamorous presenter, primetime slot, nervous participants and eager crowd – brandishing smiling or frowning cardboard faces to indicate approval or disdain – it might sound like another of China's glitzy dating shows. But the anxious men facing the cameras on Wuhan Television have more than romance on their minds. All are officials facing up to angry complaints from the public and a potentially career-stalling audience verdict.

"Ordinary people take part. Ordinary people comment. Ordinary people supervise," growls the voiceover on a trailer.

America is not the only global superpower picking a new leader this week. On Thursday, China opens its 18th party congress, designed to usher in the new generation of Communist party officials who will govern the world's most populous country into the 2020s. The process will be choreographed to within an inch of its life. Its outcomes, decided in advance by the leadership, will not be properly known until the middle of November. But the men (there almost certainly will not be any women) who file on to the stage for collective approbation face a public that increasingly demands the right to hold its government to account. The party is seeking new ways to respond without undermining its rule.

Officials are adopting additional methods of observing and channelling the public mood, whether that be using microblogs – there are 80,000 government accounts, according to state media – or television shows such as Wuhan's.

Citizens expect more from their officials, and stories of malfeasance or incompetence spread quickly online. Governance problems are given a face by figures such as "Uncle House" - a Nanjing official under investigation after internet users revealed he and his family owned more than 20 properties, despite his modest monthly salary of around 10,000 yuan (£1000).

Authorities have repeatedly vowed to crack down on corruption. State media have reported that 600,000 officials faced punishment for disciplinary violations over the last five years.

Yet in 2008, just under 40% of Chinese people deemed corrupt officials a very big problem. That has risen to 50%, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project.

The Chinese leadership "knows the legitimacy of the party now depends on performance, in terms of delivering services and improvements in living standards", said Steve Tsang, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Nottingham.

The result is what he calls "a consultative Leninist system … They want to know what people think so they can take away the causes of discontent and potential challenges to the party. That's not the same as the accountability we would talk about and expect in Europe or North America; it's more of a safety valve and has an element of [the Maoist injunction] 'from the masses, to the masses'."

The Wuhan show, which aired this summer and is due to return next month, is limited both in the subjects it tackles and in the personnel taking part. While vice-mayors appeared this summer, the city's most senior leaders were absent. It touched on issues such as food safety, but steered well clear of sensitive topics such as birth control.

Even so, the questioning was pointed at times. "I'm still sweating," vice-mayor Hu Lishan told the Global Times after appearing on the show.

Both Wuhan Television and government officials declined to respond to queries from the Guardian.

Zhao Zhenyu, a scholar at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology who also participated, said: "Because it's live, the officials can't prepare; you can tell they are nervous during the show. They have to fix the problem after appearing on the programme, as people are watching them, and they have pressure.

"There are many ways to supervise the government. This TV show is just one of them."

In one programme, a disgruntled resident complained: "You always ask us ordinary people to report it if the lake is getting filled [up with stuff], but actually even if we report it we're just wasting our time. You said you would ask people to take responsibility. You just cheat people."

An official's promise to clear up the rubbish quickly met with short shrift from the presenter: "Next month? You said 'as soon as possible'," she reminded him.

"By the end of this month," he responded.

"There are only a few days left," she said.

"In a week," he added, with a nervous smile. In another show, not available online, the head of the industry and commerce administration was reportedly confronted with footage showing his workers asking businesses to give them cash-filled envelopes - then was handed an empty letter by a presenter.

Mao Yushi, a leading economist who has pushed hard to improve governance, said improving communication with the public was a positive step, but warned: "If it becomes propaganda, it will be meaningless."

Critics see such projects as essentially tokenistic and argue they do little to tackle the problems at their roots. They say what is needed are measures to improve transparency, such as publishing officials' assets, and, ultimately, democratic reforms.

"These new programmes sanitise and normalise the 'trials by internet' of corrupt and incompetent government officials which has already been going on for some years in China," said Dr Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on propaganda at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch.

Those had developed, she argued, because the justice system cannot be relied on to resolve such problems and the Chinese media is muzzled and shackled.

"These programmes represent an attempt to appease the popular desire to hold officials accountable and will also likely attract a wide audience - meeting both the Party line and the bottom line," she added.

• What better way to prepare to ring in the new, than to clean out the old? And so the week began with the formal expulsion of Bo Xilai, the erstwhile rising star who fell from grace, accused of numerous crimes including corruption and bending the law to hush up the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood by his wife, Gu Kailai.

Once his wife was convicted, Bo's fate was never seriously in doubt. The only surprise, perhaps, was that it took a four-day closed-door meeting to ratify it.

• Few things encapsulate the authorities' approach to the 18th congress – the simultaneous desire for fanfare and secrecy – better than state news agency Xinhua's report on plans to update the party's constitution. It announced that the central committee had approved an amendment, which can only be made at the congress, and that the heir apparent, Xi Jinping, had elaborated on it.

It said that the amendment had been decided at a Politburo meeting last month – and that it would reflect the party's latest theoretical achievements in localising Marxism and practical experience. Is that clear?


Tania Branigan in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Bo Xilai and corrupt cadres a 'profound lesson' for Chinese Communist party
On eve of 18th party congress to anoint China's new leaders, spokesman says fighting corruption is an arduous task

Tania Branigan in Beijing

07, Nov, 2012 @4:29 PM

China prepares for power handover but reverberations will be felt worldwide

The world's second-biggest economy will see power shift to Xi Jinping, but its population has no real role in choosing a leader

Tania Branigan in Beijing

01, Nov, 2012 @4:50 PM

Article image
China faces pressure for reform as new leadership is chosen

With social problems spreading, a younger generation may be ready to question Communist party policy

Tania Branigan, Beijing

04, Nov, 2012 @12:06 AM

Article image
China party congress: old guard finds it hard to let go

Re-emergence of former party leaders illustrates extent to which power in China is still about personalities and patronage

Tania Branigan in Beijing

14, Nov, 2012 @8:30 AM

Article image
China unveils new faces but old policies as Xi takes over party and military
Pledge to tackle official corruption from new chief but ex-leader Jiang Zemin's influence brings in conservative politburo

Tania Branigan in Beijing

15, Nov, 2012 @8:19 PM

Article image
Xi Jinping takes reins of Communist party and Chinese military
'Princeling' gives confident performance as he introduces conservative team to media

Tania Branigan in Beijing

15, Nov, 2012 @7:52 AM

Article image
Will China's new leaders do things differently? | Isabel Hilton
Isabel Hilton: How they deal with future economic challenges and the Tibet crisis will test whether the claim to wise meritocracy is credible

Isabel Hilton

01, Jan, 2013 @6:00 PM

Article image
China's new leaders paint a picture of totalitarian banality | Jonathan Jones
Jonathan Jones: Framing the debate: This photograph of a triumphant party elite is an overt display of democracy's opposite without any hint of self-reproach

Jonathan Jones

16, Nov, 2012 @2:30 PM

Article image
Xi Jinping: the 'big personality' taking charge in China
The man anointed as China's new leader is a very different figure from his predecessor, Hu Jintao

Tania Branigan in Beijing

15, Nov, 2012 @9:21 AM

Article image
Chinese leadership: speculation begins on who will take power in 2022

Thoughts turn to who might lead the country when new president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang retire

Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing

15, Nov, 2012 @7:47 PM