I watched the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party,
which ended Sunday, from my apartment like an American following a
nominating convention on C-SPAN. It was foreign but also eerily familiar.
Foreign because the black haired men on camera sat U.N. fashion in
long rows, took notes throughout the speech and remained expressionless.
No cheering allowed. Familiar because if you closed your eyes and
skipped over hot button regional issues like Taiwan you might have been
listening to a State of the Union address.
China's TV9, the government's English language channel, broadcast
President Hu Jintao's 2 hour, 20 minute "Work Report" live on Monday morning
and followed up with news updates through the week.
Immediately after Hu ended an attractive woman anchor in a pink suit
jacket interviewed two academic commentators about military spending, the
environment and other highlights that I assumed the leadership wanted
directed at an international audience.
A few hours later, an English version of the speech with some 20 "key
points" in the right hand column was up on the net.
The first bullet was on "sustainable growth." The second observed that Hu
"mentions democracy" more than 60 times. Others were, "no tolerance for
corruption, modernize the army for self defense, enhance soft power, reverse
growing income disparity, advocate a conservation culture" and quadruple per
capita GDP in the next 13 years without damaging the environment or wasting
The handout might have also said Hu called for better health care,
better schools, lifetime learning programs and major investments in
innovation, which he did.
The goal to quadruple per capita GDP, now $2,024 shifts the emphasis
from raw economic size to individual welfare. It's a tall order even in an
economy at 10% plus a year. Economic size is the stat you hear about when
forecasters predict China will knock off the U.S. as the world's largest
ecoomy by 2020 or 2025 or whenever. By emphasizing per capita GDP the
government is suggesting that the goal is to make sure the roaring economy
will also benefit everyone and help narrow the expanding rich poor gap. But
unless the economic czars make sure the gains are spread around, growth
doesn't necessarily mean income equality gets better.
The rich-poor gap is an A list issue but it's hard to tell how much
feedback the 73 million member Party wants about any of the above -- and if
China's newly prosperous urbanites are listening at all.
A few hours before Hu's speech, a 40 inch flat screen TV made by LG, the
South Korean company, was suddenly mounted in the foyer of our J school
building. It carried the speech and Party Congress news all week.
Dozens walking by treated it the same as a cable news screen in a U.S.
office: they glanced up and kept going.
The only guy I saw viewing it all week was the security guard-but he's
posted in the hall.
We so called "foreign experts" teaching at Tsinghua U. did get invited to
the discussion however. A Ms Qi Yin in the HR office of sent an email to
about 90 of us on the first day of the Congress asking for comments and
suggestions. Tully Rector, a visiting U.S. philosophy professor made
the obvious point. All worthy goals, he said, but vague enough to mean
A German academic went further. China is doing a lot of good that goes
unrecognized but gets a bad international press because of the constraints
it puts on open discussion.
Lighten up, he suggested. We'll see.