A small group of men, including the future leader Mao Zedong, met in secret in this house over a couple of days in July 1921 for the party’s 1st Congress. It was a humble beginning for what has become the world’s largest political movement.
The political descendents of that small group of men meet in Beijing on Thursday for the beginning of the Party’s 18th National Congress. With more than 2,000 delegates in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, it is a far cry from that first meeting – but much secrecy still remains.
“First thing I want is to improve my salary. Also I hope the government can control corruption.“
– Wang Zaijie, Shanghai waiter
The next leaders of China and the make-up of the Politburo Standing Committee – the country’s highest decision-making body – will be unveiled during the Congress, but the process to decide the appointments takes place behind closed doors. The membership of the top bodies is likely to have been decided ahead of time, with political posturing taking place behind the scenes for many months.
Show me the money
While Thursday is a politically significant day for China, many ordinary Shanghai citizens who work and live near the home where the first party meeting took place 91 years ago are mostly apathetic about politics, or are reluctant to talk about it.
A street away, Wang Zaijie takes a cigarette break from his job as a waiter in an upmarket restaurant. While he has heard about the congress and sometimes takes notice of politics, he isn’t really interested in it.
However, there are a lot of things Wang wants the new leaders to change. “First thing I want is to improve my salary,” he says. “Also I hope the government can control corruption.”
Wang says he is from Yunnan province, which was hit by an earthquake two months ago that destroyed his parents house. He says the central government gave a lot of money to help the local citizens, but a lot of it was “cut or taken by local officials”. He hopes the government will control corruption strictly so that citizens could benefit more.
These sentiments are echoed by Cao, a retired worker who doing his daily exercises by a large artificial lake. He also isn’t that interested in politics, but has opinions about what he wants to change for ordinary Chinese. He hopes the country “could give common people more rights, like the freedom to be able to talk more freely”. He says the whole world is developing in this area and China should, too.
“Before, the country covered everything. If you are sick, the country or your company covers it. If you get married the country or the company will give you a house to live in, and if you have children they go to school for free or for a low cost. But now, everything you have to pay for yourself … It is very expensive for people,” he says.Cao doesn’t think the living standards of most people are that good. He would like the government to make improvements in housing, education and healthcare.
Two smartly dressed young women sitting outside a popular coffee shop smoking and texting on their smart phones give their names as Lu and Cai. Both say they are not interested in politics.
“Chinese people are interested in politics, older people and taxi drivers, but young people are not interested, they don’t read news,” says Lu.
Money is an issue for both of them, and when asked what they would like their leaders to change, the answer is “higher salaries”. Cai also says the healthcare system and food safety are big issues that need to improve. Cai says she thinks the reason people are not interested in politics in China is “because not everyone can play a role”. If that changed, “some would be more interested”, she says.
“They [Chinese people] don’t have the experience of being involved in political decision-making, so many people see it as remote from their ability to have a say in it. It is something that happens to them rather than something they are involved with,” says Patrick Chovanec, a business professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing. But he says that people do care about politics, and there is an awareness of it.
The great unknown
The identity of the next leaders of the world’s second-biggest economy is not likely to be a surprise, with Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang expected to take the top posts. But little is known about the leaders and their political agendas. Unlike the recent US election, there have been no debates, campaigning or press scrutiny of those vying for leadership positions.
“I think that the personalities here, while they may in truth be quite important, it is hard to read into,” says Chovanec. “We tend to read something, a titbit of a biography or something they wrote or said three years ago, and we define them from that as reformers or conservatives.”
Chovanec says one reason the leaders are so enigmatic is because people aren’t privy to the internal political discourse. “We don’t see debates on policy and we don’t know who are the winners and losers in those debates. The party places importances on face and on uniformity and consensus.”
“We are trying to read the tea leaves about these people. We are glimpsing through a very dark window and trying to see what is inside.“
– Patrick Chovanec, Beijing professor
Much speculation has been arisen about the final make-up of the Politburo Standing Committee. Many predictions have been made about the possible line-up, and whether certain appointments give hints about China’s future direction, or the likelihood of political and economic reforms.
But in reality, it is impossible to predict what the new leadership will mean for China, Chovanec says.
“We are trying to read the tea leaves about these people. We are glimpsing through a very dark window and trying to see what is inside,” he says.