China’s Challenge
A new leader takes over amid mounting and increasingly open unrest.

Students from China’s Fudan University form a hammer and sickle, November 6, 2012.


Jillian Kay Melchior

As China holds its 18th National Congress this week, with the Communist Party preparing for a once-in-a-decade transition of power, the nation looks superficially exultant. Ethnic-minority delegates clad in their cultural garb smile and wave to photographers; pretty girls throng paramilitary policemen in immaculate green suits; red and yellow plastic flowers abound. Meanwhile, in the provinces, chubby-cheeked kindergartners dress up in Red Army uniforms and sing old Communist songs, and university students line up to form the Communist hammer and sickle. All very good photo ops.

But China’s blogosphere tells a different story, describing a jittery, paranoid Chinese leadership. The Mandarin word for “18th Party Congress” — shrr-ba-da — sounds a lot like “Sparta,” some Chinese netizens have quipped, and that’s roughly the mood in Beijing this week.

There, cab drivers have been instructed to child-lock their rear doors and remove the window handles altogether to prevent passengers from throwing out subversive pamphlets. (In a city where impoverished drivers often work, sleep, and eat in their taxis, many passengers are now complaining about strong odors in cabs.) Meanwhile, balloons, pet pigeons, ping-pong balls, and remote-control airplanes have all been identified as possible security risks. Heavy censorship has frustratingly slowed the Internet, even for those with virtual private networks. And it’s even become hard for Beijingers to buy a kitchen knife or pencil sharpener from local shops.

These security precautions are extreme, even for National Congresses. But they’re also entirely understandable.

For starters, it’s been an eventful year. Chongqing Communist Party chief Bo Xilai’s highly publicized fall from grace has been China’s biggest political scandal in a generation. Earlier this year, coup rumors circulated online and were taken seriously by many, though they proved ill-founded. And rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng’s high-profile escape this summer also proved embarrassing to the government.

Less publicized has been the wave of Chinese public protest in the last year. The number of so-called “mass incidents” has steadily increased year by year, reaching the tens of thousands. And in its new report released last month, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China noted that “citizen protests against lack of basic freedoms and official abuse . . . in some cases were unprecedented. In late 2011 and early 2012, China’s beleaguered workers continued to strike and organize for higher wages and better working conditions in reportedly the most significant series of demonstrations since the summer of 2010.” That trend has prevailed despite the Congress. Last week, thousands of residents gathered in Ningbo, roughly 150 miles south of Shanghai, to protest against the expansion of a state-owned petrochemical plant.  And in Tibet, five people have self-immolated this week alone.

Beyond the broiling public discontent, China’s Communist leaders have an even bigger reason to be nervous. The 18th National Congress is facing a growing legitimacy problem that will plague Xi Jinping when he assumes the presidency this week. Unlike his predecessor, Hu Jintao, Xi can’t boast of being hand-picked by reformist leader Deng Xiaoping. Nor is Xi’s legitimacy derived from the will of the people. Instead, a Chinese president’s best claim to power has become effective policy. And that’s a tall order, given the mountainous problems Hu leaves behind.

Granted, China now ranks as the second-largest economy in the world, up from sixth when Hu assumed office in 2002. And the Chinese middle class continues to grow. Yet many say China was already on track for this growth beforehand, and that Hu’s policies have been unhelpful.

Hu has conducted economic development recklessly. Across China, pollution is pervasive and heavy — it really does often look like this. In some cities, the smog is reportedly so thick that businessmen have to polish their shoes every day to buff off the grime. White shirts become yellow-brown after a few days in urban China, and laundry hung to dry in the muggy air sometimes causes rashes. When the environment is that bad, citizens start noticing.

Also of concern to average Chinese, Hu has failed to curb China’s investment-consumption balance, a growing problem for the national economy. Inflation remains high, driving up prices of food and consumer goods; this is the top concern for six in ten citizens, Pew reported last month.

Furthermore, under Hu’s tenure, state-owned enterprises have been sheltered. That’s discouraged competition, to the detriment of Chinese consumers. It’s also led to corruption. China’s powerful are increasingly its wealthy, a class of conspicuous cadre-businessmen who cruise around in black Audis or tricked-out sports cars, drink copious amounts of baijiu, and generally do whatever they please. Pew found that 50 percent of the Chinese it surveyed considered these corrupt officials a “very big problem,” up from 39 percent four years ago. Even Hu realizes this; in his speech Thursday, he said that corruption “could prove fatal to the party and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.”