BEIJING - First you have to get through the police cordons, four or five of them. Tourists on their way to the Forbidden City are asked to remove their hats and open their coats for inspection. On the steps of the Great Hall of the People, a Tibetan woman in traditional dress and other delegates wearing vibrantly colored headgear and sashes -- representatives of the quota minorities -- pose for pictures.
Then it is time for the members of the Politburo, led by former party leader Jiang Zemin, to go into the hall. As they do, the music of a military marching band imparts the vague feel of an itinerant circus parade.
The speech by Hu Jintao, the leader of China’s 1.3 billion people, follows. The title: "Firmly March on the Path of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and Strive to Complete the Building of a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects."
The "18th Big," as the 18th National Communist Party Congress is referred to locally, has begun.
Four minutes later, Jiang Zemin, sitting up front, closes his eyes for the first time. Thirty-three minutes after that, long-legged hostesses troop in from both sides of the stage bearing thermoses and go on to wend their way through the rows of seated delegates executing a kind of choreographed tea-serving dance. Every few minutes, the speaker punctuates the reading of his 64-page speech in hypnotic singsong with a sudden sharp bark – a crescendo at the end of a sentence. After he does this a few times, you know he’ll do it again but not exactly when, so there’s a constant surprise element. The bark is the order to applaud.
Example: “Together with Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the important thought of Three Represents, the Scientific Outlook on Development is the theoretical guidance the Party must adhere to for a long time." Bang, jolt, and the delegates applaud.
Reactions to the speech from users of Sina Weibo, China’s micro-blogging service, included: "What? Can somebody translate?” and "Could they just once stop taking us for idiots?"
In its way, China’s Communist Party has led the country into modern times -- and in so doing has itself fallen behind the times. The perfectly synchronized tea-serving show with the hostesses at the Great Hall is a repeat of the sort of spectacles that have been staged for decades and that fewer and fewer Chinese comprehend. It was like the High Mass of a party that has led its people into the age of Internet and Twitter but is still stuck in the era of old revolutionary rituals.
The dictatorship has changed
The deepening chasm between the Party and the people is due to the fact that both have changed, particularly urban people -- and of course the Party has become a pit of corruption. "The government’s credibility is crumbling," says Yu Guoming, an opinion researcher at People’s University in Beijing. “People don’t trust it anymore.”
That’s bad news for the Party. Why? Do rulers in an authoritarian system need the acceptance of their people? They didn’t use to. True, but once again – times have changed. The nature of the dictatorship is different, not because the Communists now espouse capitalism and profit-greediness – repression, censorship and propaganda are still the hallmarks of their power – but because they’ve made an unspoken deal with the people: we’ll see to it that things improve economically, and you do what you have to, to get along with us.
The Communist Party catered to that role, projecting an image of selfless, hard-working leaders working day and night for the well being of the people and the good standing of China in the world. But even people who bought into that image were unsettled at the latest this year by the most recent batch of scandals. People have become too aware of the great wealth of the leading families, while 150 million Chinese live on less than a dollar a day and the new so-called “middle class” can barely afford an apartment in the country’s hyper-expensive cities.
There is a great deal of cynicism, not only as regards functionaries but also toward the Party. China’s leaders have always been almighty, accepting no responsibility and never held accountable. And now they are suddenly facing a nation – including people in their own ranks -- who expect exactly that from them.
The new attitudes owe a great deal to new media. China has over 530 million Internet users, and more then 300 million Weibo users. Only three years old, the micro-blogging site Weibo was created because Beijing’s censors couldn’t control Facebook and Twitter traffic. However, although both the state and Weibo itself censor the service, they can’t keep up.
The result is a new social conversation in China. It is chaotic, sometimes idiotic, and mostly irrelevant. But it’s led to what Party officials always feared: the Chinese people are talking to each other. On Weibo, strangers who live thousands of kilometers apart are pillorying everybody from dog-meat eaters to corrupt Party officials.
"The net is incredibly important in China," says writer Dai Qing. "It’s a school, a library, and mainly a stage where you hear voices you never could have heard before. For the first time we have a little bit of free space in this country,” she says.
Among the 2,300 delegates at the Congress there was also an "Internet guru," as the Chinese news agency Xinhua proudly reported on Friday: Shu Bin, who heads a local network portal in the city of Changsha. Shu micro-blogs on Weibo. For example, he uploaded the photo of a costumed delegate. "She is Party boss in a minority village," he wrote. The photograph was much appreciated by users, Xinhua reports, one of who wrote: "What a lively picture! Much better than the TV coverage!” The Xinhua report ends: "Shu knows how to capture peoples’ attention.”