Chinese savour political choreography

Chinese citizens were glued to TV sets on Thursday, watching Xi Jinping’s ascension to head of the ruling party.

The old men were falling asleep. Sitting around a large conference table in front of a TV on the top floor of the village HQ, they had been waiting two hours for Xi Jinping to appear. Now he was running almost an hour late. 

The oldest man in the room was 91. He had no teeth and didn’t seem entirely sure where he was.

Others were yawning loudly and rubbing their faces. One was amusing himself by putting his cigarette into his toddler grandson’s mouth.

The women were more robust, perhaps less in need of nicotine and apparently more absorbed by the state television’s replays of the close of Congress, footage of China’s economic achievements and monotonous studio chat about the way forward – as the CCTV anchor filled in time while waiting for the leaders to appear.

Endless top-ups of jasmine tea were passed around the table.

As soon as we turned on our camera, the village propaganda chief ordered everyone to stop smoking. “It doesn’t look good,” she barked.

We were there filming these aging communist party members of Xiajiang County as they watched Xi and his new Politburo Standing Committee be pronounced the new leaders of China.

There’d been much excitement since they knew Xi personally. He’d visited Xiajiang four times in the early-to-mid 2000s when he was head of Zhejiang province. He was well-liked. The farmers said he was friendly, shook everyone’s hands and seemed to really care about the ordinary people.

Former village chief Jiang Yin Xiang said: “I’m sure after Xi Jinping becomes Party General-Secretary, he’ll definitely remember the village. We have a long friendship and people here miss him a lot.”

And he brought government subsidies. All the farmers’ mud brick homes have been replaced with smart three-storey houses.

“This is socialism with Chinese characteristics,” remarked Jiang. “People go make lots of money in town and send it back to build bigger houses.”

But still these old farmers weren’t keen on wasting their entire morning waiting to see Xi. And it was unheard of for China’s most closely-choreographed political event to be running behind schedule.

Users of Sina-Weibo – China’s version of Twitter – were just as impatient, with comments such as:

“The poor CCTV presenter, can you please stop torturing him” and “Punctuality is a virtue”.

When he eventually appeared – followed by Li Keqiang then Zhang Dejiang, the ex-Zhejiang party chief who’d begun the tradition of visiting the village – the room erupted into applause.

But at the end of the speech, the room emptied faster than if there’d been a fire, leaving a trail of overflowing ashtrays and half drunk cups of tea.

Xi has called for party cadres to be the best friends of farmers, but even those who’ve benefited directly from his patronage struggle to find relevance in the politics of Beijing.

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