inside thoughts on China and beyond

Power Lines

It’s a routine that goes back for many, many years. You will recognize it each time you visit a Chengdu school, or any school in China for that matter. It’s a routine that brings back long forgotten memories. It’s the routine of lining up; and it is not just at schools. 

Lining up -do you remember? Who did not have to line up in your younger years, back in the days of black boards, white chalk and stern teachers? Didn’t you have to line up whenever the whole class was leaving the room? There always was a line leader; someone had to be the first and no one liked to be last, right? And somehow, as little kid, you knew that being the first in line was worth a fight.

For most of the line leaders though, reality was hard and the glory short-lived. It always took light years and much teacher-yelling for a line to be formed. But once out of (her) sight, the line dissolved in total anarchy. As splinters of an exploding grenade all kids scattered themselves around the playground, each to their own secret hide-outs and to their own favorite groups.

The importance of lining up doesn’t stop when leaving the school. That is surely true in China, where this remainder of survival-of-the-fittest mentality is an unstoppable internal drive to be the first in line and to be the number one. Competition becomes even more serious in higher-up spheres, reaching a climax in front of the gates of heaven, Tiananmen Square, where the country’s leaders scheme in the Zhongnanhai. And ending the Party’s 18th National Congress last week, a gathering of China’s most poweful and best connected representatives of faraway provinces, these leaders of China have just formed their own new line with Xi Jinping as line leader. It took months of backstage fighting and stabbing and strategic maneuvering of protégées to form this line. Gone are the days when the current leader could appoint a jiebanren, or “chosen successor.” Now, yesterday’s leaders are today’s players: Jiang Zemin, the patriarch that formally left politics 10 years ago but never really said goodbye to the power that came with it, and Hu Jintao, who ruled the last 10 years, were both shouting their own orders and made their last moves in this typical Chinese political chess game, securing positions for their henchmen and through that, securing their own future. Finally, for the few minutes that the line held when they walked on stage, one sixth of the world’s population could see who their new leaders would be for the next decade, and in what ranking order. But unlike the rest of the world that wants thorough background checks of the second and third and fourth and even the last person in this line, most common Chinese don’t really care. For them, Beijing is as far away as Brussels and Strasbourg is for most Europeans. Or Washington for proud Texans.

Do believe me if I say that I was not planning to bother you with yet another political analysis on China that predicts the collapse of this last line of power due to internal fighting and external dissatisfaction. Simply because I know that that won’t happen: Ge Honglin, the mayor of Chengdu, told me so.

This is what happened. Over tea, he reminded me of that old Chinese saying: “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away”. Then he smiled a smile that revealed more than words can say. (Now this sounds as if I often have tea with him, which of course is NOT the case, but it does sound powerful and it makes me feel, for once, in front of the line again.) But I did have tea with him once. Somehow, I was part of a selected group of people that was invited to have tea with the mayor. All powerful men of industry that could and would help Chengdu to new heights and lasting greatness … and me. And so it was.

The teahouse was deep in the tea-producing mountains of Ya-an and we had to drive 2 hours to get there. Surrounded by motorized police we left downtown Chengdu at nine. All drivers were instructed to turn on their blinkers and, when approaching ‘commoners’ (gone are the days that these creatures were called comrades), to use the car horn instead of the brakes. On to the highway we went, in order of importance. First the darkened limousines, with of course the mayor as line leader, then the VIP buses and finally, at the very end, me and some colleagues in our own car. But don’t laugh at me for being at the tail end of the line; at least I was in the line –where were you?

And anyway, after I had assured myself of my value and importance, I was determined not to be at the tail for long. As soon as we hit the highway, we started to overtake the buses. In no time, we were in the middle of the line and at times, we could see the mayor’s car. Right in front of us was an old black VW Santana with tinted windows. I was surprised to see this ancient symbol of power here. For years, Santanas were used by party leaders as a confirmation of their superior status. But that was before Audi came to town. I assumed it was just the tea plantation owner and so we passed him too. Now we were only 5 Audi’s away from the mayor and six cars away from being the first in line. We would have passed the mayor and gone for the front seat, was it not that we reached the end of the highway.

The road became narrow and windy and now, policemen took control. Collectively, we disregarded all traffic rules and ignored traffic lights, regardless the color. This was safe: police had cordoned off all side roads hours before. Sharp looking policemen were stationed on every turn of the winding road that lead us up the mountain. Often, on previous trips, I had passed policemen like these standing motionless beside the road, complete with suit and cap and dignity and always with their left hand up in a somewhat demeaning gesture. And always in the middle of nowhere. It was quite intimidating and it used to make me slow down even if I wasn’t speeding, only to discover from up-close that they were dummies. Dusty dummies. But here they were real: no dust and no dignity. At last I understood the lack of real policemen in the rest of the country. The king needs his troops nearby.

In a large open courtyard in front of what once had been a Taoist temple, the mayor was seated, the tea was poured and his speech was ignored. We all knew what he was going to say. Every sentence would be a strategic homage to Beijing and to Hu’s ‘harmonious society’. To sooth the Party’s new line leader Xi, the mayor will soon adapt his speeches. Not his practices. Beijing–even in these modern days- is far and this king had his own plans. With weak compromises in the Zhongnanhai, local lords can be strong. Mark my words: Chengdu is going to be the center of the Middle Kingdom. Shanghai had done it: ignoring Beijing for years and under Zemin’s protection it returned to the long lost glory. Now it was Chengdu’s turn to be the first in line and provide a jiebanren and be the center of this new century that, mayor Ge is sure, will be “the era for the revival of China“.

And me, well, I have decided that I might be better off just looking for another line.

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19 responses

  1. Interesting piece. Here in Hong Kong, it seems that this city, like you, would prefer to look for another line…

    November 22, 2012 at 7:39 pm

    • Ah, yes, for sure I’m not alone in this!

      November 28, 2012 at 8:03 pm

  2. free penny press

    What a wonderful post!!

    November 22, 2012 at 9:32 pm

  3. Did you find that other line by now? Thanks for sharing this blog!

    November 27, 2012 at 2:58 am

    • Still looking… ! But than again: ‘the grass on the other side always looks greener’…

      November 28, 2012 at 8:12 pm

  4. enjoyed reading your post :)

    November 27, 2012 at 4:19 am

  5. A different take on tourism/travel writing. I like!

    November 27, 2012 at 7:22 am

  6. Great post, and as another Dutchman in China (GuangZhou), I would have to say that teh distance between ZhongNanHai and Guangdong really matters… Although people here say that they knew for 10 years already Xi JinPing was going to be the leader. A weird reality to me, as I explained to them about our recent Government change in Holland, (and the other four in the last 10 years hehe). I hope you meet up has been fruitful, in terms of guangxi! I love you photography! Great travels! De groeten

    November 27, 2012 at 8:52 am

  7. what a great way to tell of a change :)

    November 27, 2012 at 5:00 pm

  8. Nice.

    November 27, 2012 at 5:49 pm

  9. Glad you didn’t get shot :)

    November 27, 2012 at 7:14 pm

  10. Fascinating post. I am trying to learn as much as possible about Chinese culture, and really all cultures different from my own. I am interested in everything from geo-politics to psychology. You keep writing, and I’ll be reading. I enjoyed this post a great deal and appreciate the insight you’re sharing. Congrats on being FP.

    November 27, 2012 at 9:15 pm

  11. That was a good article.

    November 27, 2012 at 9:21 pm

  12. really interesting :-)

    November 27, 2012 at 9:34 pm

  13. Reblogged this on Many Top Picks.

    November 27, 2012 at 11:42 pm

  14. Interesting take on the importance and symbolism of lining up.

    November 28, 2012 at 4:24 am

  15. I remember lining up in primary school in China! This is an interesting take on the leadership transition. I wonder where Xi’s wife fits in the line.

    November 28, 2012 at 8:11 pm

  16. I have always been interested in Chinese culture, this post was amazing at expressing the power struggle at the top of Chinese politics. Hopefully one day I manage to visit there.

    November 28, 2012 at 8:35 pm

  17. “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away”.

    I like this saying!

    November 28, 2012 at 11:20 pm

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