Who’s Behind The Curtain

So any guesses? Come on? Know any famous Asians these days? Who? Hu? Who?!? No. Not Hu. It’s Xi. Xi Jinping. Xi who will soon be obeyed… (it’s pronounced like ‘she’ if you’re wondering).

OK, that was a terrible joke.

So after all the excitement and collective exhalation, not to mention the relief, of Barry’s win on Tuesday, today (Thursday) the Chinese do something rather interesting too. Every ten years the leaders of China play a bit of musical chairs and then announce a winner. But like many things in China, they like to give the impression the process isn’t a foregone conclusion even though everyone knows it is. Sort of like a pantomime but with less cross-dressing.

A lot is written about China in a very knowy showy kind of way. Lots of guesses written as certainties and all that. Which can, and sometimes do, end up spectacularly wrong in some way. Chinese politics is interesting because it’s incredibly secretive. But by that token it’s hard to say much about what’s going to happen so everyone relies on lots of guess work. Suffice to say this change happening at the top is equally as important to the world as the American elections. The main difference being that this isn’t quite an election and it’s the exact opposite of a feeding frenzy of inane sound bites and overly complicated infographics.

The current Politburo Standing Committee. Even if it was a clear picture you wouldn’t recognise anyone. They are all wearing dark suits, with red ties, and all have jet black hair. The next lot will look the same.

How the Chinese government goes through this process is quite mysterious, but what is known is fairly complex in it’s own right. There is Party at the top, who are not the government. The party pretty much chooses the Politburo Standing Committee (those nine men – no women, though there might be one this year but it’s a long shot). They are the top dogs really, but as with any process similar to this there are factions; hardliners, reformers, old guard, princelings, etc. It’s incredibly labyrinthian in it’s scale and scope. The lot that are going to come in in the next few days are the 5th set of leaders in China. Xi Jinping will almost certainly be President, technically Chairman, of this 5th generation. The first was Mao, whose title was Supreme Leader (but also Chairman – I said it was confusing). Then there was Deng Xiaoping who was also Supreme Leader, after Mao. Jiang Zeming and Hu Jintao followed Deng, but were Presidents, not Supreme Leaders, and power was spread out to committee rather than personal leadership as it was under Mao and Deng. There was a guy between Mao and Deng, but he was ousted after a couple of years and is mostly an afterthought.

A lot was obviously made about the American elections and rightly so; America is the last superpower in the traditional sense. It has created a hegemonic empire through culture and force; we are unlikely to see anything similar again in quite the same way. But other than by China watchers, not a lot is really being made about the change at the top in Beijing as the American elections. But it will, without question, affect the next 10 years directly, and also at the very least the first half of this century. The reasons range from the fact that China is the second largest economic power in the world, it has the largest standing army in the world, it is incredibly ambitious; it is not a democracy, and in short, it is is not to be trifled with. And this terrifies lots and lots of people. It is a culturally complex place as well. It is, to steal a line from a BBC journalist, a civilisation within the borders of a country, sort of like Europe. But with less austerity and twice as many people. That’s a lot of people.

The previous four.

China is pretty much set to shape the next 50 years whether we like it or not. Americans are in fear of their loss of power, but should take some consolation from history, and realise all empires come to an end, though America is hardly about to become a pauper state: it will still have a huge influence on world events. But it will have to contend with China whether it wants to or not. Starting a fight probably isn’t the best idea (yes, we are looking at you still, Mitt). China of course will have its own problems. China has an incredibly bad reputation, though no one recognises the good things it does for its people. It is estimated the 95% of its population has some basic health coverage. Ninety five percent. If we were to say that the country has a population of a billion (obviously it has more) than that is at least 950,000,000. That is three times the population of America, where only 84% of the population have at least the same basic coverage. Hundreds of millions of people have  been lifted out of poverty in the last 20 years. That’s not to say they all drive cars and live in nice houses. But that is the UN’s definition of poverty, and lots of people are above that line. This progress has happened in the last 30 years, and sadly in those years they did also gave us the Tiananmen Square massacre and lot’s of arrests of political dissidents. Not to mention the troublemakers out west setting themselves on fire… So it’s not all rosy. But the idea that China must be feared as an eastern menace is wrong. At the same time don’t expect them to play by anyone else’s rules.

What is particularly interesting about this change over is the fact that it is the first that will contend with social media. Never before has such a closed off event had the potential for so much scrutiny in China like this one. There is an ongoing scandal with a chap named Bo Xilai who is implicated in the murder of a British businessman. There is much protest about corruption and various other scandals involving Party chiefs. There is also an environmental awareness that there never used to be, and factories are getting into trouble. Chinese people are able to access so much more information than before on who was running their country, that this event is so unique. There is a massive forum for them to criticise which was simply not there before. But that doesn’t mean everyone is going to turn around and demand democracy.

So China can at times seem like a riddle wrapped up in an enigma to a lot of people. Being a secretive state, it is confusing to deal with and understand. Mix that in with a different set of cultural rules and there is much to learn. A good way to start would be recognising who is hiding behind the curtain waiting to take over.

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