‘Nervous Fever’ in China

BY Michael D. Mosettig  November 21, 2012 at 11:25 AM EDT

China’s new Politburo Standing Committee members arrive to meet with the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 15. Photo by Reuters/China Daily

Beyond the work of a few Beijing-based correspondents, much of the commentary on the recently concluded Chinese Communist Party Congress has come from analysts tens of thousands of miles removed from the mostly secret deliberations. But a few China watchers are trickling back to the United States and giving impressions of a country in something of state of anxiety over the selection of a new leadership.

For instance, Orville Schell of the Asia Society and a frequent NewsHour guest over the years, returned from China on Sunday, and in a conference call said “there was a kind of nervous fever in the entire country.” From the observations of Schell, a China scholar and journalist, came the impression of a Communist Party leadership and vast population equally worried about the other.

In the run-up to the party congress, Schell said it felt as if no official or functionary, even at the lowest level, could make decisions for fear of creating any kind of disturbance that would rattle the leadership. As non-political an event as the appearance of the San Francisco Orchestra at the Central Music Academy turned into a heavily guarded gathering with no audience allowed to sit in the balcony.

When the new leadership was presented last week on national television, not a lacquered hair on the heads of the seven Standing Committee members was out a place. The picture of order, Schell said, was a counter-balance to a sense of nervousness. China has much to be proud of, he said, but the level of self-confidence is low. For example, hundreds of popular protests are going on all over the country against land seizures for industrial or residential developments that ultimately will profit the party officials in the middle of the deals. Out of their concern about popular discontent, and for a leadership whose searing experience was the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989 that shook the system to its core, the government has imposed some incredibly rigid controls. He described China as the most heavily surveillanced country in the world, noting on some Beijing street corners there might be ten cameras.

Schell compared the complaints against corruption, which he called the number one issue facing the new leadership, to the feeling of internal rot that preceded the downfall of the Nationalist government in 1949.

“They are scared to death,” he said of the new leadership and that the appointment of a former top economic official Wang Quishan to head the Standing Committee’s anti-corruption committee was an indicator of how important the issue has become. That was a more upbeat appraisal than offered by Brooking Institution analyst Cheng Li that a party riddled with corruption decided it could police itself rather than turning the task over to a more independent body.

Both Schell and former Clinton Administration official Kenneth Lieberthal, who was in China right before the party congress, said the deliberations drew heavy traffic on the Chinese micro-blog site Weibo. Lieberthal said some of the comments were quite sarcastic. Schell said the site, which now draws several hundred million followers, becomes a giant cat and mouse game with authorities. A post will go up for about 15 minutes until the government’s army of censors pulls it down. And the government has its own loyalists posting more favorable comments.

Lieberthal was part of a panel at the Brookings Institution, which provided a modern twist to the maxim of 1950s Washington society hostess Perle Mesta: “Put a lamb chop in the window, and they will come.” Now, it’s put the word China in an email, and you can fill a large conference room with more than 100 diplomats, journalists and think tankers eager for any morsel of information about a political process that Schell described as something “that happens in a black box.”

But whether viewing from the scene or from afar, the analysts still reached basically the same conclusions. The top seven members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo got as far as they did by family connections and by not rocking the boat. Beyond finding some tea leaves in party documents, there is little evidence they will vigorously push economic or political reform, even as they realize the country has outgrown its current system of governance.

And then there always is a hedge. As former U.S. Ambassador Stapleton Roy told the Brookings gathering, no one tipped either Deng Xiaoping or Mikhail Gorbachev for the historic reformers they became. And as Lieberthal said, it will be months before the new party leaders consolidate power and take decisions that will give a clearer picture of China’s future course.

Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he writes dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.