BEIJING (Reuters) - When China’s twice-a-decade Communist Party Congress opens on Monday, tight security and a culture of secrecy will ensure its decisions are made behind firmly closed doors.
But leaders would be wrong to think ordinary citizens are not paying attention.
Many in China’s growing urban middle class have firm views on what they want in a leader, where the country’s priorities should lie and even about the sensitive subject of political reform.
“You hear a lot of rumours, but you don’t really know how this stuff happens,” said Xiao Lin, a manager at an energy company in Beijing. “It lacks transparency.”
But while pleading disinterest, Lin also speaks knowledgeably about how the drive toward balanced growth under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao has changed energy policies, which directly affect his work.
The 28-year-old is at the winning end of China’s growing divide between rich and poor, but he still cites the wealth gap as one of his top concerns.
“Although I live in a big city, I’m from the countryside. I visit there and I realise what a big issue it is,” he said.
With the Congress marking the likely halfway point in the Hu-Wen era, residents tend to give the duo higher praise than former leader Jiang Zemin, citing their concern for the poor.
“The feeling the Jiang Zemin era gave people was that the national economy developed very quickly. But social fairness was neglected,” said Xiao Ding, a 24-year-old teacher.
He cited the abolition of crippling agricultural taxes dating back 2,000 years as the greatest Hu and Wen achievement.
“This government is more practical than the last one. With Jiang it was all about empty slogans,” said Andrew Li, who works for a foreign trade company.
Asked about the biggest challenge facing China, Beijing residents routinely single out corruption, a problem that even the country’s leaders admit threatens the Party’s legitimacy.
They also worry about the economy — galloping ahead despite a raft of measures designed to steer growth to a more sustainable pace — and cite rising house prices as a major personal concern.
“There is not much I can do in terms of who will be promoted or who will step down, but at least I can be prepared for possible changes,” said Steven Chan, a manager at an investment consulting firm.
A leadership meeting that doesn’t rock markets — Shanghai shares have soared to record highs — is Chan’s key concern.
“For us, we hope for the whole transition to be smooth and for measures to cool down the economy to be moderate,” he said.
The Congress is expected to keep Hu and Wen at the top while naming a new leadership line-up that may signal an heir-apparent to take the helm in 2012, but residents are resigned to having no say in who leads the world’s most populous country.
New York-based Human Rights Watch says repression is intensifying ahead of the Congress, to ensure stability and “impose a veneer of social harmony on the capital”.
Says Li: “We’re used to not being able to participate. We’ve grown up that way.”
For many, that lack of choice at the top is not a matter of great concern. But many also have distinct ideas about how China could become, if not a democracy, then more democratic.
“I trust that the new leaders they chose will be the most capable,” said Ding, adding he would favor those with grassroots experience. “Their understanding of China is more complete.”
But for him, the fight against corruption can’t be taken seriously unless there is independent oversight.
“If you’re supervising yourself, it doesn’t work. If you’re really a society based on rule of law, law must be above the Party,” he said.
Lin would welcome more political participation and transparency, with more channels for people to get involved and express their opinions.
For now, the doors of the Congress remain shut tight, barring a few ceremonial sessions and Hu’s opening address.
“It’s just a game played by a small group of people,” said Li.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Vivi Lin