Endless and pointless meetings are by no means unique to China, as almost anybody who works in a large organization can attest.
But the Chinese Communist Party has refined the endless meeting to an exquisite level of pointlessness, and on Friday, when journalists were invited to sit in on “private” discussions among delegates to the 18th Party Congress, the phenomenon was on full display.
None of us had expected lively and spontaneous debate about the speech that party leader Hu Jintao had given on Thursday at the opening of the Congress. That is not the way things work here.
But there was no discussion of any description of the speech at any of the three gatherings that I attended in ornately decorated, thickly carpeted, marble pillared meeting rooms in the gigantic Great Hall of the People.
The Shanxi provincial delegation meeting seemed pretty typical. Thirty or so delegates were sat around a U-shaped table, and one by one they made their speeches.
'Yesterday, I heard Hu Jintao's report'
“Yesterday, I listened to Hu Jintao’s report and I found it very profound and very correct,” said Wu Huada, president of a coalmining company, before reading his prepared remarks about improved mine safety in Shanxi.
“I heard Hu Jintao’s report yesterday, and I firmly support this report,” said Niu Guodong, who introduced himself as a worker at the largest stainless steel factory in the world, and then read from a text explaining the energy saving measures the factory has introduced.
“Yesterday, I heard President Hu Jintao’s report and it expressed the will of people across the nation. I shall study it further,” promised Li Fei, a local party secretary, who then read her speech detailing the number of kilometers of road paved recently and the number of rural schools that had been remodeled in the county she rules.
All over the Great Hall of the People, in room after room, delegates were droning on about things their audiences knew already, or if they didn’t know, they evidently did not care about. Some stared into the middle distance; others pored over the speeches they themselves were about to make; some openly read a newspaper, or dozed.
The whole exercise appeared to strike them as a monumental waste of time; everything had been scripted in advance, and everyone had heard it all before.
Nor are these sorts of meeting uncommon in China. This was the cream of the Communist Party, but officials at all levels of the Chinese system spend huge amounts of time engaged in similar meetings.
It struck me that the progress China has made in so many spheres over the past 30 years is even more remarkable when you take into account that its successes have been achieved even though the people running the country waste so much of their time in endless and pointless meetings.
A Chinese colleague, however, had a more cynical take on what we were witnessing. “It just shows,” she said, “that the country goes on running perfectly well even without all these guys while they waste their time at meetings.”