China's 'masses' vocal about politics – for a change

Normally deferent Chinese, now facing a stark gap in wealth between the coast and inland, are taking a stance on Beijing's leadership change.

Largely out of fear or habit, ordinary Chinese – the masses often referred to as "laobaixin" or "old one hundred names" – usually shy away from showing too much interest in political questions.

But ahead of China's Central Party Congress in Beijing next month – a once-in-five year event that could bring a major change in China's leadership – things are different. While foreign investors build tennis-shoe and auto factories along China's east coast, and Beijing pumps billions of development dollars in China's far west, the country's vast middle reaches have little to cheer about.

Take this rumpled provincial capital and fading textile center in Hebei Province, where people are keenly aware of the upcoming congress.

"We all watch TV. We read the papers. We talk," says a young appliance salesman working in a shareholder owned company. "In Hebei, you can't afford to ignore Beijing. We are extremely interested in what happens."

Hard times, along with an awareness of new wealth in other parts of China, are creating a bit of stir among the normally deferent "old one hundred names." As a result, many are expressing opinions on the evolution of power in Beijing that are slightly sharper and a bit more raw. The shift is especially evident on the streets here.

By contrast, on China's prosperous east coast, the country's premier political event is far from compelling conversation. There, families "feel secure," as one Western analyst puts it.

Chinese here say they want essentially two things: more opening to foreign investment and a crackdown on corrupt officials.

"We care whether changes in Beijing will help ordinary people, or just benefit government officials," says Jin, who runs a storefront photo shop. "Here, it is hard to do business. Beijing has many five star hotels. We have one."

"My friends and I, we want a new generation of rulers. It is their turn," says Liu, a young man hawking water purifiers from a small table outside a shopping center.

For more than a year in Beijing, speculation has built over whether the reins of power will shift to a "new generation" of leaders, represented by the relatively young and quite unknown Hu Jintao, or whether current President Jiang Zemin will stay on, despite an agreement five years ago to retire. The outcome has enormous implications for China's future foreign policy, for its economic and military future, and even for morale inside the Party, sources in Beijing say.

Yet after a summer of meetings at the Party hideaway in Beidaihe, the lineup of China's next Standing Committee, the state's highest collaborative body, is less clear. Last month the Wall Street Journal ran a story announcing with near certitude that Mr. Jiang would stay. A day later, the Washington Post cited US scholars working with high level Party sources, who stated with equal assurance that Jiang – a consummate politician whose has steadily expanded power over his tenure – would step down.

Jiang's forces have mounted an effort to keep him as head of the party. But even he does step down from office, it won't be known immediately if Jiang will still control the levers of power.

Leadership transitions in communist China are traditionally mysterious. Not until the Standing Committee emerges from behind curtains at the Great Hall to address the world press, will the lineup of personnel be clear. Transitions have also been consistently marked by turmoil or violence, something that now appears, for the first time, unlikely this fall.

In Shijiazhuang, where bicycles and vegetable carts can still tie up downtown, residents look to Beijing for help. As in nearby Taiuan, one of China's coal-mining centers, residents view Beijing's east-coast development strategy in the 1990s with a mixture of envy and resignation – and constantly compare their lack of progress to the Japanese, Korean, and US investment wealth flooding China's cheap labor coastal areas.

Laid-off workers in the interior region of corn fields and coal mines are increasingly unable to find work. Inland regions face "difficulties attracting further investment," and even coastal areas will now compete under World Trade Organization rules, according to a study at Singapore's East Asian Institute.

"The coastal areas became rich because they got support from officials at the top that let them do what they wanted," says an unemployed schoolteacher. "The statistics say we are well off. We are not."

Based on roughly a dozen interviews done at random in the city center, residents of Shijiazhuang are slightly leaning toward Mr. Hu as their hope for China's next general secretary. However, they all would gladly support whomever the party choses, so long as "China continues to open up," as one appliance salesman says.

Some China hands interpret these feelings as natural, given that Hu spent his early training in rural and interior areas – whereas Jiang rose to prominence in Shanghai.

But as life gets harder here, a more audible criticism of corruption is detected. One laid-off worker tells a story, now typical around China, about peasant and worker unhappiness in his suburb: Officials sold a piece of land collectively owned by villagers, and did not share any of the proceeds. Later, 50 retired workers confronted town officials about their use of proceeds to take a trip to Europe and to buy six expensive cars.

"The majority of villagers were against this sale," says the local man, who refused permission to use his name. "Our village charter states that all changes in the land, and spending, be known to the peasants. We didn't know until it was done. I consider it the job of the Party to police this."

But the village chief is also the party secretary. "What my wife and my friends want from Beijing is to hold these people accountable. I don't know if new leaders will do that. But I can hope."

Many Chinese point out that corruption is a problem "in all parts of the world," as the photoshop owner says.

One electrical engineer sharing a bucket of fried chicken with his wife and 6-year-old boy in a popular fast-food restaurant offered a sophisticated analysis of China's Nov. 8 congress. He wants new leaders, but only if they come to power in a stable and smooth manner. "I don't talk about this at work, but privately, I would like the young leaders; I think it is Hu's turn. But I most want things to go smoothly.

"The older generation will go sooner or later. So this needs to be smooth; we can't afford a crisis right now. We've come a long way."

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