Inside Story

Waiting for the great eighteenth

On the eve of China’s eighteenth party congress, life in Beijing is changing in increasingly obvious ways, writes Antonia Finnane

Antonia Finnane 2 November 2012 1113 words

A worker wipes down a welcome banner for delegates to the eighteenth congress of the Chinese Communist Party, to be held on 8 November.
Photo: Antonia Finnane

THE shelves of our local video shop have been cleared again. You can buy How Green Was My Valley with Chinese subtitles but not much else. People in the know make their way out the back, past the toilets, to a storeroom behind an unmarked door, where Chinese and Russians jostle with Americans for elbow room and the chance to buy a full season of Homeland for seven or eight dollars. (Homeland is getting mixed reviews from Chinese viewers: “Can’t compete with 24” is a common response.)

The last time the shelves were cleared was a month or so ago, shortly before the National Day holiday. The video shop is just around the corner from the local police station: the police must come around with a warning at critical junctures. The logic of having all these pirated goods in full view 90 per cent of the time and then mysteriously absent for the other 10 per cent is that Beijing should set a good example when there are visitors in town, especially visitors from the provinces. The biggest drought in pirated videos was in 2008, around the time of the Olympics. Of course, there are pirated videos available in the provinces, too; it’s about face, not practice.

Not coincidentally, the internet has become almost impossibly slow. Google can be opened, but not the individual links, and Google books can be searched but not always previewed. People in government offices and institutions aren’t answering email enquiries, or if they do answer it’s to say that the enquiry should be directed elsewhere. Work meetings are being held without reaching decisions; international conferences are being cancelled or postponed. Since life is otherwise normal in many respects, it has taken a while for people to realise that an unusual number of things aren’t being done at the moment.

This has not gone unremarked. As the capital formally entered the advent period for the congress, Beijing’s evening paper published an article scolding Beijingers for their current attitude of “just wait and see, hold on a bit” – an attitude that isn’t helpful, stated the article, to the “scientific development of the capital’s economy” at this moment in the nation’s history. The barely articulated assumption was that nothing untoward was happening. The eighteenth party congress was business as usual: a routine meeting for the routinised transfer of leadership to the next generation of party leaders. The current massive upgrade in security, we might conclude, is just another part of that routine.

The city took a while to show the imprint of the coming event. Even in normal times, this is a place that carries its ideology on its sleeve. Red banners all over the city call on residents to foster the spirit of Beijing (patriotism, creativity, tolerance, virtue), reject heterodoxies (in other words, unauthorised religious affiliations), study Lei Feng (the St Aloysius of the Chinese Communist canon), and be civilised (which means queuing up). Street bulletin boards carry propaganda posters alongside the daily newspapers. In advance of special occasions – National Day, for instance – it is normal to see a rash of fresh banners and floral installations around the city. But before this week, it was possible to walk many blocks without seeing any reference to the congress at all.

Now the banners are proliferating. “Welcome the delegates to the eighteenth congress of the Chinese Communist Party” hangs back to back with “Resolutely develop socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Outside the Ministry of Justice a large floral installation features “Welcome the great eighteenth” against a backdrop showing the city’s iconic modern buildings: the Bird’s Nest, the Water Cube, the splayed legs of the CCTV tower. These are all products of the last decade, and indelibly associated with the regime of party secretary Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao, which is drawing to a close. The shapes on the installation are vaguely suggestive of how the buildings look when they’re glimpsed through the haze of pollution that regularly clouds the city.

With this “great eighteenth” in mind, Wang Xiangwei, editor-in-chief of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, turned his attention recently to the problems of the Chinese capital: crowding, traffic, real estate costs, pollution and associated health problems, and an uncertain water supply, to name a few. He had a solution inspired by South Korea’s diversion of much government business away from Seoul: move the capital. For many, the obvious alternative site would be an earlier capital, Nanjing, situated far to the south on the Yangtze River. But Wang’s idea is that the capital should be moved to a site in Hebei province, the province in which Beijing municipality sits, as the Australian Capital Territory sits within New South Wales. He didn’t mention a specific location, but suggests somewhere between 100 and 150 kilometres away from Beijing and easily reached by very fast train. Baoding, around 150 kilometres to the southwest and for some decades the provincial capital, fits the bill.

This good idea is unlikely to advance beyond the pages of the South China Morning Post. The opportunity to bypass the problems of rampant urban growth in Beijing was surrendered in the 1950s, when a sensible proposal to leave the old city intact and build an administrative city to its west – like India’s New Delhi – was rejected. “Beijing’s fate was sealed,” the art historian Wu Hung has written, “by locating the government in the old city.” From this decision flowed the problems of traffic management and conservation that continue to characterise debates about urban planning for the ever-expanding capital.

The city is currently expecting one of the cyclical inflows of visitors that test its best-laid plans for organised flows of traffic. Shiny new crowd control barriers have been installed in the subway stations, replacing the bits of string that used to serve as guidelines to the security stations. The sleepy-looking girls and boys who slouch by the surveillance machines are being joined by smartly uniformed militia. Around 1.4 million volunteers have been recruited to keep everyone in order. Ninety thousand street cleaners have been mobilised. The municipal security forces have taken a collective oath to “wage the battle in unison, carry out the mission with honour, fight with determination and win with resolve!” In short, as the press here reports, “The Great Eighteenth is at hand! The bugle has sounded!” Homeland just can’t compare. •