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China Congress: Glimpse behind the curtain of power

Sunday, 11 November 2012 - 1:44pm IST | Place: Beijing | Agency: The Daily Telegraph

A delegate to the Chinese party congress tells Virginie Magin and Malcolm Moore what goes on inside its closed meetings.


When China changes its leaders this week for the first time in a decade, Zhu Yu will have an inside view of one of the world's most secretive conclaves. The well-manicured 49 year-old also stood in the Great Hall of the People 10 years ago to see President Hu Jintao anointed as paramount leader.

But then she was a journalist covering the event for Xinhua, China's official state media, and she freely acknowledges that she had "no idea" what was really going on behind the scenes. "You know, journalists were not allowed to see every step of the process," she said, sitting in a cafe in central Beijing.

"There was no way I could know what the delegates experienced." This time, Zhu will get a proper glimpse behind the curtain; she has been chosen as one of the 2,268 loyal Communist Party delegates who will carry with them the wishes of 1.3billion Chinese.

How she became a delegate to the 18th Party Congress remains a mystery. "You do not voluntarily try to get into the process and you do not know if you are nominated at first," she said. But after having been put forward by her colleagues at Xinhua, Zhu was carefully scrutinised, for the better part of 18 months, and voted on twice by different committees before her telephone rang.

"I did not expect to be chosen, to be honest. When they called to tell me, I was really surprised," she said.

Open-minded, internet-savvy and regularly broadcasting her thoughts via social media, Zhu is a far cry from the stiff old men with jet-black dyed hair who filled the stage as the party congress opened on Thursday.

"People have started calling me Delegate Zhu," she said, appearing both bashful and delighted at the elevation. "Some have been urging me to tell officials not to wear luxury watches, and others say I am not using perfect Chinese when I tweet. They say as a delegate, I should be upholding the Chinese language."

As the Congress moves into gear this weekend, Zhu will theoretically get her chance to choose the leaders who will steer China through the next decade. "I am allowed to choose my preferred leading members, and if I got enough votes, I could be a leader, too," she said proudly. "Every delegate can read the reports evaluating the top leaders. I have the right to read them and make my own decision. After all, I have to know them better before I can vote for them."

In reality, the process has the thinnest veneer of democracy, since the number of places on the Politburo Standing Committee, China's equivalent of the Cabinet, will match the number of candidates put forward. Speculative lists of which leaders will make the cut have been circulating for weeks, but the final decision will rest with just a handful of party elders and current leaders, China's version of the College of Cardinals.

What Zhu will be able to witness, however, is how members of China's elite network manoeuvre during the week-long Congress. Hundreds of delegates have been filing into the Great Hall of the People to meet in small groups and discuss the future of the party. In an attempt to appear more transparent, the party opened some of these sessions to the media, one of which proved unexpectedly lively when Sun Luyuan, an 11-year-old reporter for a teenage newspaper, asked a pointed question about food standards.

"I love snacks, but I don't dare to eat snacks now and neither do my classmates, as there are so many poisoned foods on the market," she said. "So my question to all the minister-level uncles and aunties is: how can we children eat foods without concern?"

While the question momentarily galvanised what was otherwise becoming a soporific affair, Sun received the same stock answer that most other questions prompted: the government was doing all it could to improve things. Overall, the proceedings throughout the Congress have been carefully choreographed, with delegates chosen to reflect the party's inclusiveness and breadth. In turn, they make speeches praising the party, Mr Hu's leadership and occasionally themselves, sometimes to the annoyance of party bosses.

"We will not charge you for that advertisement," said Wang Yang, who is party secretary of Guangdong province, as one self-congratulatory delegate spoke. Wang, 57, a powerful and reform-minded party boss, had little time for the display of bowing and scraping by the delegates, openly tapping his fingers impatiently, talking over them and bringing more turgid speeches to an end.

"I am so excited to be in Beijing that my heart is pounding in my chest," said Du Xiaojuan, an entrepreneur. "Maybe you would feel better if you sat down," Wang responded, drily.

However, behind closed doors, and in the comfort of the several state-owned hotels that have been booked out, and carefully guarded, for the delegates, there will be a much more free and easy discussion, according to former attendees. "You can say anything and discuss everything," said one source, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the event.

For Zhu, it is a golden opportunity to be close to the secret heart of Chinese power and to boost her own career in the process. But she is determined not to let the honour go to her head. "A lot of people believe that delegates are privileged. It has been freezing cold in the last few days and one day, when I was shivering at home, I tweeted a post about it. A lot of people responded, saying all I had to do was let the government know and my problems would be solved. But actually, delegates are not privileged at all."

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