America is not the only superpower picking a new leader this week. On Thursday, China opens its 18th party congress, designed to usher in the new generation of Communist Party officials who will govern the world’s most populous country into the 2020s. Its outcomes, decided in advance by the leadership, will not be properly known until the middle of November. But the men (there almost certainly will not be any women) who file on to the stage for collective approbation face a public that increasingly demands the right to hold its government to account. The party is seeking new ways to respond without undermining its rule.
Officials are adopting additional methods of observing and channelling the public mood, whether that be using microblogs or television shows. Citizens expect more from their officials, and stories of malfeasance or incompetence spread quickly online. Authorities have repeatedly vowed to crack down on corruption. Yet in 2008, just under 40% of Chinese people deemed corrupt officials a very big problem. That has risen to 50%, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project.
A show on Wuhan Television, which aired this summer and is due to return next month, is limited both in the subjects it tackles and in the personnel taking part. While vice-mayors appeared this summer, the city’s most senior leaders were absent. It touched on issues such as food safety, but steered well clear of sensitive topics such as birth control.
Even so, the questioning was pointed at times. “I’m still sweating,” vice-mayor Hu Lishan told the Global Times after appearing on the show. Both Wuhan Television and government officials declined to respond to queries from the Guardian.
Zhao Zhenyu, a scholar at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology who also participated, said: “Because it’s live, the officials can’t prepare; you can tell they are nervous during the show. They have to fix the problem after appearing on the programme, as people are watching them, and they have pressure. There are many ways to supervise the government. This TV show is just one of them.”
Critics see such projects as essentially tokenistic and argue they do little to tackle the problems at their roots. They say what is needed are measures to improve transparency, such as publishing officials’ assets, and, ultimately, democratic reforms. “These new programmes sanitise and normalise the ‘trials by internet’ of corrupt and incompetent government officials which has already been going on for some years in China,” said Dr Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on propaganda at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch.
Those had developed, she argued, bec-ause the justice system cannot be relied on to resolve such problems and the Chinese media is muzzled and shackled.
“These programmes represent an attempt to appease the popular desire to hold officials accountable and will also likely attract a wide audience — meeting both the Party line and the bottom line,” she added.