Senior Chinese Communist Party leadership has recently called on propaganda officials to study the “spirit” of a party congress that ended last week. The same holds true for the thick work report delivered to the assembly by the outgoing party secretary, the revised party constitution and a subsequent speech by the new secretary, Xi Jinping, that’s been printed in pamphlet form and distributed to state-run bookstores.
Perhaps China’s mandarins are able to decipher the spirit and broader meaning of those many thousands of words dense with jargon. From the outside looking in, though, so far there’s only speculation about the party’s intentions.
“It’s really a kind of guesswork,” said Bo Zhiyue, a scholar of elite Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore. “Everybody is trying to guess what Xi Jinping really means.”
A week’s time means little in Chinese politics, which typically are governed by incremental change and slow consensus building. But the days that have passed since the new lineup of the all-powerful politburo standing committee was unveiled Nov. 15 have been marked by a lack of any bold strokes. All of which leaves observers to wonder whether big change could come tomorrow, or not at all for the next decade of Xi’s time in office.
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The state news wire Xinhua reported Thursday evening that Xi had called on propaganda officials “to carefully prepare for the work and accurately understand the party national congress spirit.”
What the implications of that might be, exactly, wasn’t spelled out.
In the run-up to the party congress, which lasted Nov. 8-14, there had been hopes of leadership taking the country in a new direction after a decade that saw large economic growth but also political stagnation and simmering social resentment. The standing committee turned out to be stacked largely with older officials seen as relatively conservative.
Like his predecessor, Xi has said that official corruption represents an existential threat to the party. In his address Nov. 17 to the nation’s 25-seat politburo standing committee – now available publicly as 13 pages of monologue -- he warned that if left unchecked corruption could “ultimately lead the party and the nation to perish!”
An editorial that followed three days later in the English-language newspaper China Daily, a state publication, said that, “some new institutional mechanisms can be expected in the near future to intensify supervision over leaders at all levels.”
But there’s been no indication of the sort of political reform that would address what many observers maintain is the core problem: the fact that the Communist Party and its officials often operate above the law in China.
That creates a situation in which change is discussed by the very organization that critics say is the elephant in the room.
For instance, the party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper ran a strongly worded editorial Wednesday that criticized the nation’s system of re-education through labor and said it was in need of reform.
The piece pointed to the case of Ren Jianyu, a former village official who was freed Monday after serving more than half of a two-year sentence for posting online items that disparaged the government in the southwestern city of Chongqing. The former head of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, was kicked out of the party after a scandal this year and now awaits indictment on charges that are expected to include corruption and abuse of power. While in power, Bo promoted a wide revival of Mao Zedong-era culture, which has now fallen from favor.
However, a court rejected Ren’s lawsuit against the local re-education through labor committee the next day. His lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, cautioned against reaching any broad conclusions about a shift in China’s approach to the rule of law in the context of Ren’s release.
“Currently, re-education through labor is still a major measure in maintaining stability. They won’t abandon it easily,” Pu said in a phone interview.
Also this week, authorities in the southern province of Guizhou temporarily banished a man named Li Yuanlong. Li had published online accounts about five boys, from 9 to 13 years old, who were found dead in a trash bin last week. Authorities said the boys had suffocated from the smoke of a fire they’d started to keep warm.
The news of their deaths created a backlash and touched on public anger about the perceived lack of care given to the nation’s vulnerable. Eight government and education officials were suspended or fired in the aftermath, according to state-run media.
Hoping to prevent Li, a former journalist previously imprisoned for his writings, from posting more information or talking with the press, local officials told him he had to leave until the matter blows over, said Li Fangping, a rights attorney who knows him. He’s said to have left the province for an undisclosed location -- it's unclear whether he did so in the company of security officials.
The use of forced “vacations” is an extrajudicial tactic that police and officials commonly use when dealing with activists. “The demand for stability can overpower the law,” Li Fangping said.
He said he didn’t foresee much chance of that changing under Xi’s leadership: “I only hope that the situation doesn’t become worse.”