Big Ifs

Article excerpt

The new leadership of China, unveiled so recently during the seventeenth Party Congress in October, is taking the country towards its date with destiny - the opening of the Beijing Olympics, on the eighth day of the auspicious eighth month of 2008, at eight minutes past eight in the evening. The world will have a chance to look long and hard at the leaders of the globe's greatest, and most successful, mass organisation, the Chinese Communist Party as it pulls the nation towards superpower status.

tHIRTY YEARS AFTER THE REFORM PROCESS started in 1978, following three decades of Maoist dictatorship, things have come a long way in China. It is now the world's third largest economy, the holder of the largest foreign currency reserves and the world's largest recipient of foreign direct investment. Its impact is being felt globally, as a trading partner and geopolitical actor.

The Olympics only reinforces all of this, providing a stage on which Politburo leaders can be seen, understood, and judged. This level of scrutiny is unprecedented in Chinese history, with over thirty thousand journalists converging on Beijing for the three weeks of the event.

The world will be searching hard for clues about how the elite leadership is performing. Already there are clear signs that the government is getting nervy - with evidence that some weeks before the Olympics even start, the city will be cleared of 'undesirable' elements - migrant workers, prostitutes, and dissidents.

President Hu Jintao, who has never given a media interview to a western outlet since assuming power, may well be rudely catapulted to the forefront of a hostile press if there are heavy handed reactions to criticism, or even demonstrations that need explaining. Public relations companies like Ogilvies have been offering advice, but for Hu, one of the world's most wooden media performers, the Olympics are going to offer a huge challenge if things do start to go wrong.

Perhaps at such a point, one of the newly emerging leaders of the next generation, Xi Jinping or Li Keqiang, will be given their chance to make an impact, presented to the foreign press with the opportunity to gain a leadership reputation within, and beyond China. But if they were to perform badly, of course, then the likelihood is that they would be fed to the wolves. High level politics in China was never for the feint of heart.

FASTER OR SLOWER?

The Olympics will also be an opportunity to look a little harder at the forces at work in the Communist Party. These can be broadly split between those who want more reform, faster, and those who would prefer to slow things down and seek a model of development more in line with China's specific circumstances over the last half century. The slower tendency is uneasy about the rise of entrepreneurs, wants the Party to take stronger lines on international issues like Taiwan, and to forge a sense of a strong, unified country going into the twenty-first century.

Both sides are unified by a pretty strong nationalism, something the Olympics will only enflame. And both know that the greatest threats to stability come from within - the inequality, lack of resources, environmental challenges, and the fact that fundamental decisions need to be made about political reform, following on from all the economic change over the last two decades. The debate is, however, about how this reform is carried out, and when. This will rage long after the final gold medals have been awarded, and the world's press has moved on.

As a group of people, the Politburo standing committee has more power than any other in the history either of the People's Republic or of the Communist Party. This might explain the signs of a genuine tussle before the congress last October over who should be elevated, with rumours that there were not one, but for the first time two elections within the top leadership over both who should get in, and then which Politburo ranking they should be given. …