China’s 18th Party Congress: A Blogger’s Lament

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You may have noticed a falloff in blog production on this page over the past few days, roughly contemporaneous with the beginning of the 18th Party Congress here in Beijing. This is not coincidental.

This may seem rather counter-intuitive. After all, the media is chock full of news, background and features about the meeting, the key players, the policy discussions, and related commentary. Shouldn’t this be the time to put on a scary big pot of coffee, forego sleep, and pound out post after post about China politics?

You’d think that, sure. And Beijing certainly is excited about this event. As Jamil Anderlini snarkily described in the Financial Times: “Beijing looks as if the government declared martial law in the midst of a floral convention.” Plenty to write about, then?

Perhaps, but keep in mind that the 18th Party Congress is a political event. Just like with the recent party conventions in the U.S. over the summer, the meeting is a controlled affair with a set agenda and a mission: delivering a positive message to the unwashed masses (you know who you are).

It just so happens that I find the message, and most staged political events these days, incredibly boring. Even the thought of banging out 1,000 words on the intellectual underpinnings of China’s “Scientific Outlook on Development” sends my prefrontal cortex into “stasis mode.”

But it’s not just paralyzing boredom that’s the problem:

There isn’t any news — Again, this is a controlled political event. Exciting news would be evidence that someone in the CCP screwed up royally. What was the big takeaway from yesterday’s proceedings? President Hu gave a speech. You probably saw this covered quite extensively in the press, with commentators parsing the language and trying to figure out what each cough, pause, and “um” meant. Boring and unproductive, if you ask me. Malcolm Moore got it right in a snarky report for the Telegraph, noting that “there were more than a few stifled yawns inside the Great Hall of the People.” Of course, not even that was news to anyone familiar with past speeches of this kind.

The Intertubes Are Backed Up — Net connectivity problems don’t stop real journalists, but for this hobbyist blogger, it doesn’t take much for me to turn off my browser and go play with the cat, which is more stimulating anyway. And over the past week or so, my usually hit-or-miss IT infrastructure at home has been stuck on “miss” more often than not. Yes, I can still access domestic coverage of the Big 18th, but it’s hard to write something thoughtful when you want to toss your laptop out into the street. Last night, I was even having problems with my wireless router, and I certainly can’t blame that on the Great Firewall. It’s all so disheartening. Then again, at least when my VPN craps out on me, I don’t have to subject myself to headlines like this award-winner from CBS News: China’s secretive congress to plot power transfer begins. Fair and balanced!

My Speculometer Is Broken — Coverage of China politics is at best an exercise in guesswork and rumor-mongering, and at worst a steaming mound of odoriferous bovine excreta. The CCP is not exactly a transparent organization, and it is generally fairly adept at domestic message control. As long as it stays out of Times Square, it does OK. That means that the only people who know what the hell is going on are folks with inside information and hot shit China scholars. I fall into neither one of those categories. To make matters worse, none of us civilians even know if the purveyors of inside information are on the level or are con artists looking for attention. Call it Pekingology or any number of other cutesy labels; it’s mostly speculation, and I’ll pass, thank you very much. As “Empty Chair” Eastwood once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.

Patience Really Is A Virtue — As I noted above, the “news” out of yesterday’s proceedings was a bit underwhelming. With the exception of the membership of the Politburo Standing Committee (actually just a couple of the seats), we already know most of the key players in this little non-drama. In other words, don’t look for CNN to break into coverage of the latest missing white girl with a dramatic “News Alert: Huge Surprise at 18th Party Congress!!!” The important decisions will be announced in good time, and then the usual suspects will have plenty of time and opportunities to tell us what it all means. Until then, I’ll be the one playing with the cat.

I Think I Already Read That — If you look carefully at a lot of the “18th Party Congress” coverage from the last few days, you’ll notice something odd: it looks really familiar. Why is that? My guess is that none of these articles on who will be appointed to Position X, whether there will be any political reform next year, when will the economy be rebalanced, what will be the next leader’s foreign policy, etc. and so on, are actually new but were put out there numerous times over the past year or so. Maybe the thinking is that readers were not paying attention back then, so it makes sense to re-run all the debate, speculation and commentary. Since I’m not selling any advertisements, count me out. Then again, judging by the lack of substance of this post, perhaps I shouldn’t be throwing stones.

Enough whining? Probably, and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s mood on a Friday afternoon. Here’s the new China Hearsay tag line: when the news breaks, there’s a decent chance I might mention it, eventually, if I feel like it.