You hear this from old men exercising in the park, from young professionals heading home from work and even, in hushed tones, from lower-ranking members of the Communist Party.
On one level, they’re probably right. The leadership change is unlikely to have an immediate effect on the majority of China’s 1.3 billion people. Neither will the masses have any say in the Communist Party’s mysterious selection of the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee that rules China.
The process is so cloaked in secrecy that no one knows for sure who’s in the running besides the top two officials set to replace President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Even the date of the Party Congress at which they will be announced remains unknown — with estimates ranging from September to November.
But on another level, the leadership change will affect everything and everyone, and in many ways already has. Preparations for the 18th Party Congress have forced most of the government into gridlock for the past year, as though the entire system were holding its breath in anticipation. Major reforms and new laws have been stymied. No real solutions have been prescribed for the economy’s systemic problems even amid a worrying slowdown. And the country’s entire security apparatus has been mobilized, slowly tightening its chokehold on dissidents, journalists, grass-roots organizers and bloggers as the high-stakes meeting has drawn closer.
Apathy and concern
And so whole swaths of Beijing teeter daily between utter apathy and an intense concern that borders on paranoia.
On the paranoia side are the authorities, who have been churning out reams of pro-party copy in state-run news media, running endless security drills and generally girding up for the once-in-a-decade event. The country’s thousand-some police chiefs have been summoned to Beijing for lectures. Fire inspectors have already gone through the Party Congress venues from top to bottom — twice. Authorities have been scouring the Internet and municipalities for the smallest signs of unrest and heading them off — at times with force but also, surprisingly, sometimes with concessions to those protesting.
Many of the more coercive actions — such as chasing rural petitioners appealing to the government for help and other troublemakers out of the capital — tend to begin closer to critical events, so it’s unclear just how this year’s security crackdown will compare with those seen during previous leadership transitions. But not since the 2008 Summer Olympics, residents say, has security seemed so tight.
Military leaders have issued a flurry of statements assuring their loyalty to the yet-unnamed leaders. Equally desperate to show loyalty, even lowly toll station operators in Jiangsu province have pledged on government Web sites to ease local traffic lines as a tribute to the party meeting.