Intense power struggle going on behind the sound bites

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 March, 2011, 12:00am

What is it that I will take from the National People's Congress meeting in Beijing this week, many of you have asked.

It is not the caring about minyuan (the people's grievances) expressed by Premier Wen Jiabao, who had this last legislative meeting to influence the paragraph that will be written about him in Chinese history.

It is not the talk of building 36 million subsidised homes in the coming year, a plan with no details on how to pay for the trillions of yuan required.

And it's not the pledge to make Hong Kong an offshore yuan centre and an international asset management centre, which is kind of inevitable.

No, it is the rare media shows put on by two competing leadership aspirants - Wang Qishan and Bo Xilai - on the sidelines of the meeting, and the implications for the political and economic policies in the year to come.

But before going into that, let me share my experiences of the annual meeting of the National People's Congress in Beijing.

I was there more than six years ago, working for another newspaper, a far less questioning one than this one on policy matters. Two days before the Minister of Commerce's meet-the-press session, I got a phone call from an official asking if I had a question for the minister.

Sure. I sent in some questions. A day later, my phone rang. The officer said he was happy to inform me that I had been granted a question. I would have to report to a certain office about 30 minutes before the press conference.

I did and there was a woman waiting for me. For the next half an hour, she was with me everywhere. As I wondered how the minister, whom I had never met, could pick me out from the dozens of other eager faces, the woman escorted me into the hall and sat next to me.

After questions from CCTV, Xinhua News Agency, an American agency, a European newspaper and a Japanese agency, the minister pointed his finger at me, or should I say my escort, and I had my question. The minister replied, reading from a script.

The point is, almost everything you see, hear or read in the Chinese legislative meetings has been carefully planned and scripted. There is little room for accident or coincidence in this venue, where journalists from every part of the country and the world gather. It is the best place to spin.

Selected ministers are made available to the press. 'Discussions' among legislators and officials of selected provinces are opened - some to the local media and a few to everyone.

It is in this context that Bo, the Chongqing party head widely tipped to be a Politburo Standing Committee candidate, staged a high-profile, one-man show this year.

Bo, a household name for his good looks, princeling status and singer wife, is not known to be media friendly - unless you are from CCTV or Phoenix TV and have a camera crew at your side.

Yet, on March 6, he invited the media to his meeting with the Chongqing legislators. He asked legislators to keep their speeches short to allow more time for the press, and then sent the legislators away as the 'press conference' ran into a second hour.

He talked about his draconian crackdown on the triads; his grand subsidised housing plan; and his patriotic sing-the-red-songs campaign, all of which have gained him unprecedented attention and made a political comeback possible.

'These have all been planned by the central government,' said Bo, adding that the media should stop trumpeting the accomplishments in Chongqing or 'people may think otherwise'.

A day after Bo's remarks made a splash in various mainland and Hong Kong newspapers, Vice Premier Wang made a surprising move by showing up at the meeting of the Guizhou legislators.

It was surprising for two reasons. First, Wang - son-in-law of a former vice-premier and the country's new economic as well as financial tsar - has kept a low profile throughout his career. His face is little known to most outside the financial world.

Second, he has no connection with Guizhou, which is better known for its strong and expensive liquor mao tai than its financial industry.

Yet there he was, telling the chairman of Kweichow Moutai Company how to face up to media reports about fake liquor, before veering off into a criticism of mainland bankers and their hunger for sheer size.

'Everybody is after big business. Who will then brave the mud and the smell of a pig farmer just for a small loan of some hundred thousands [of] yuan?' asked Wang, noting that small businesses are the genuine job providers.

'I criticised them [the Beijing Bank]' he said. '[I said] I took a nap and you have gone [into Harbin]. Isn't Beijing a big enough market for you? You went somewhere else. So who is going to take care of Beijing?'

The session was not open to the press. However, his juicy quotes - which mimic the style of his mentor, former premier Zhu Rongji - were widely reported by state media that day and made headlines on the mainland and in Hong Kong the day after.

This scrambling for publicity by these political heavyweights is extraordinary. Why? In a country where transparency and accountability is unheard of, one can only think of the upcoming leadership reshuffle in November.

Though the top posts are filled, seven out of nine Politburo Standing Committee seats are up for grabs. The rare moves by Bo and Wang indicate that the seat scuffle among different camps is far from settled and is very intense. If that is the case at the top, it will be the same at various levels down below.

Play it safe and make no last-minute mistakes is the theme. On the political front, it can mean zero tolerance for any call for democratic reform. On the economic front, it can mean the forceful implementation of the subsidised home scheme and a clampdown on speculation, at least on paper and before the leadership change.

As for development after the leadership change, that's another story.