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<p>Guo Guangjie/Color   China Photo/AP Images</p>

Guo Guangjie/Color China Photo/AP Images

Soldiers take an oath before the Communist Party flag ahead of the 18th National Congress.

China’s Un-American Non-Election

Crunching the numbers on the Communist Party.


Anyone feeling burned out by the hyperbole, partisanship and mass fervour of the presidential election that just passed in the United States might consider taking a trip to Beijing right now.

Starting Thursday, the Chinese Communist Party will kick off its 18th Congress, a week-long meeting that officially picks the next generation of China’s leaders, likely to be headed by the longtime heir-apparent, Xi Jinping. Another senior party official, Li Keqiang, is set to become the country’s number two. It’s a curious mix of spectacle and non-event, carried out behind a wall of secrecy, security and pomp. Everything has already been decided behind the scenes, before the Congress. Unless, of course, there has been some monumental, unforseeable cock-up.

<p>Guang Niu/Getty   Images</p>

Guang Niu/Getty Images

The nine current members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo during the 17th Party Congress in 2007.

The thing is that, despite the predetermined nature of the event, people are anxious. The Party has been undermined by recent public scandals, the economy is not as stellar as it once was, and the gap between rulers and ruled is widening. There has been plenty of speculation about the Communist Party’s internal intrigues and factional rivalries – machinations the outside world sees only murkily, if at all.

So let’s take the lack of debates, campaign rallies and attack ads as an opportunity. Let’s do something we seldom do when countries hold pesky democratic elections. Let’s look at the big picture.

Here are a few numbers that point to the machinery underpinning politics in China, a country that is richer, more powerful and more on edge than the last time it rotated its rulers.

1.3 billion The population of China. This is an obvious one, but let it just sink in for a moment.

1 The number of parties that matter in China. That’s the Chinese Communist Party, which has ruled since 1949. There are other small, officially sanctioned “democratic parties”, but we can ignore them, as that’s what everyone else does.

The thing about China is that it belongs to the Party. The government and its institutions follow the dictates of party officials, as does the state media. China has laws, but the law always bends to the will of the Party.

This doesn’t mean that the Party is monolithic. It’s riven by divisions between factions and interest groups, and local officials get away with all sorts of shenanigans when Beijing isn’t watching. But the point is that the Party is the only game in town.

3 The number of roles Xi will likely be taking on as head honcho. You’ll likely see plenty of reports that refer to Xi as China’s incoming president. This is true – though he won’t become president until next year – but it’s also the least important of the multiple roles that he’ll be taking. Most substantial is the position he’ll accept at this congress, that of General Secretary of the Communist Party. The other, crucial title of Chairman of the Central Military Commission is widely expected to go to Xi, though it remains uncertain whether China’s current supremo, Hu Jintao, will cede the role.

7, maybe The number of seats likely to be appointed in the next Standing Committee of the Politburo, the Party’s highest decision-making body. The Standing Committee is the group of men (and possibly one woman this time) that steers China’s direction from the top, making its decisions by consensus. The current committee has nine members, but party leaders have reportedly decided to shrink it, to cut down on the clashes between different factions and interest groups, and so smooth out decision-making.

USD7.3 trillion China’s annual gross domestic product, the second-largest in the world. The economy grew 7.4 per cent (over the year before) in the July-to-September quarter this year – fast by most world standards, but much slower than China has seen in recent years. In 2002, when the Communist Party last changed its leadership, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) was USD1.45 trillion.

0.438, or something like that China’s Gini coefficient — that is, the measure of inequality in the country, where a number closer to 1 is more unequal, a number closer to 0 is more equal — according to one study of its society in 2010. Other sources put it higher. (The CIA puts it at 0.48 for 2009, the World Bank says it was 0.425 in 2005.) Either way, China has greater inequality than the US, and most commentators agree China is becoming more unequal, and rubbing tempers raw along the way. The income gap between urban and rural residents, though decreasing by some estimates, remains high; one think tank recently found city dwellers earn 5.2 times more than their rural cousins.

0 The number of homing pigeons and balloons allowed in the skies above Beijing during the party congress. State security officials have stepped up their presence across the city, placing dissidents under arrest or driving them out of town, and instituting a raft of restrictions to choke the possibility of dissent during the meeting.

1 The number of top-level Communist Party officials who will lose their position in the wake of scandals this year. Bo Xilai, former party chief of Chongqing, was a rising star and widely considered a sure thing for the Standing Committee of the Politburo. That was before he and his wife, Gu Kailai, fell from grace in a well-publicised corruption and murder scandal involving the death of British businessman (and, perhaps, spy) Neil Heywood, and the flight of Bo’s police chief, Wang Lijun, to a US consulate. Gu has already been convicted of the murder, while Bo awaits trial on charges including abuse of power and bribery.

At least USD2.7 billion The estimated wealth believed to have been accumulated by the family of Wen Jiabao, China’s second most powerful man, during his time in office, according to a recent investigation by The New York Times.

USD376 million Total assets value of companies invested in by the family of the incoming leader, Xi, according to Bloomberg. His family was also found to own a USD20.3 million share in a technology company and an 18 per cent stake in a rare-earths company that has USD1.73 billion in assets.

USD89.8 billion The combined wealth of the richest 70 members of China’s National People’s Congress, according to another Bloomberg estimate. By contrast, the 660 richest people in America’s legislature, judiciary and executive are worth USD7.5 billion.

508,000The number of Chinese who moved to wealthy nations in 2010 — a dramatic rise over past decades. Despite the growing economy, more and more Chinese, many of them successful and from the upper middle class, are leaving the country out of frustration at a deteriorating environment, limited political freedom and widespread corruption.

18,407 The number of party apparatchiks known as luo guan, or “naked officials”, caught since 2000 while trying to flee abroad with ill-gotten gains. It’s common for party officials to stash their money in foreign assets, send their families abroad, and use their wealth to help secure foreign residency or citizenship. A People’s Bank of China report that was accidentally made public last year, found thousands of officials had spirited nearly USD130 billion out of the country between the mid-1990s and 2008. Overall annual flows of money out of the country are greater still.

As a side note, Australia appears to be cashing in on the flight of Chinese assets and their owners: the government recently unveiled a new visa for those immigrants who can invest AUD5 million in Australia. The visa — which is labelled with the lucky Chinese numbers 888 — even speeds up the time needed to gain permanent residency.

90,000 The total number of “mass incidents” — protests, petitions and riots — that occurred in China in 2009, according to one study.

701.7 billion yuan That’s AUD107.6 billion and it’s China’s 2012 budget for “public security”, as its rapidly growing apparatus of policing, internal repression and surveillance is known. This year’s budget was 11 per cent higher than the year before, which also coincides with the point at which China officially started spending more on internal security than on its own rapidly expanding military. No mean feat.

0 This is probably the most important number in this whole equation. It’s precisely how many people can say with any certainty where China is heading next.

If you thoroughly enjoyed watching the US election but don’t think you can manage to sit through any part of the Communist Party’s big family bash, don’t feel bad. Unless it all falls to pieces in some unforeseen, spectacular way, it will be terribly boring.

And that’s just how China’s rulers, both incoming and outgoing, want it.

4 comments on this story
by Damian

I find it very sad and disturbing to read that some people are more equal than others when seeking a new land in which to live. Refugees and boat people, no. Rich Chinese, sure. Litterally supporting the flight of money and capital from a neighbour we need to have as a friend. Money talks, and yet we speak of their 'corruption' where are the lines? Hidden behind process and regulation and legislation, we institutionalise such corruption and permit a benevolent hierarchy of government to do the dirty work for us. How else do you justify the speediness of permanent residency vis-a-vis a middle class family going through due process through the normal channels. 888 just aren't such lucky numbers to most.

November 10, 2012 @ 3:15pm
Show previous 1 comments
by Ari

The lack of diversity in China's political system is surely setting the country up for problems in tackling challenges ahead. One of the benefits of a multi-party system is a contest of ideas, in which there's an incentive to generate creative policy solutions, bad ideas are found out and rejected and good ideas (mostly) rise to the surface. By operating in a political system that suggests all wisdom comes from the men (and possible woman) on the Politburo, China is missing out on the policy dynamism it needs.

Still, with a growth rate that's the envy of the world, China's coped remarkably well so far despite the limitations.

November 11, 2012 @ 4:51pm
by Anne Cowie

Cleverly written article, presenting eye-glazing facts and figures in an accessible, even catchy way. As a not-very informed/interested China non-watcher, I stayed with the article to the end. And was astonished by most of the information. Applause for the writer.

November 11, 2012 @ 9:52pm
by Klaaky

Surely such massive corruption and inequality is unsustainable? Those figures on the wealth of the top 70 political leaders in China vs. the wealth of the top 660 in the USA are very telling. This is wealth the party is directly stealing from its people and some day they will want to take it back.

November 20, 2012 @ 8:59am
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