Red star over China again

Maoist songs are being sung again as the world’s second most powerful country braces for new leadership; social stability still remains the biggest challenge.

world Updated: Aug 21, 2011 01:13 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times

Beijing is monitoring Indian anti-corruption protests and British riots to see if they are a warning against its own tight grip on power. It also keeping a wary eye on one of its own, a maverick in control of the world's largest city.

The stage for a leadership change in China is being set with President Hu Jintao and a coterie of the Politburo retiring in late 2012. Faction leaders and "princelings" are vying for the reins of the world's second-most powerful nation by trying to prove they can ensure the Party's present preoccupation: social stability.

To pave the road for a smooth leadership handover, Hu's government this year allocated more spending for internal public security - $95 billion - than for the military which received $3.5 billion less. Vice-president Xi Jinping, Hu's heir apparent, rose to prominence by overseeing the security of China's coming-out party in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Far southwest of Beijing, in Chongqing, a six-feet-tall man named Bo Xilai is sealing his place in the top nine slots in the Politburo. His political campaign centres on a revival of the Mao era and busting wealthy mafia, striking a populist echo by evoking a return of Red China. An insider said the 61-year-old Bo tells aides that if public concerns over land acquisition and housing prices are not stabilised, the Party will face an 'uprising' worse than the London riots.

"The legitimacy of the Communist Party of China depends on the success of the Chongqing model," Li Xiguang, an adviser to the Chongqing government, told HT. "Bo will be the right-hand man of Xi Jinping to take China in the right direction."

If Shanghai is the dragon's head, then Chongqing is its tail, say officials in this Yangtze riverside megalopolis. Chongqing poses a governance challenge as big as the population of Mumbai and Kolkata combined. The rich-poor gap that Bo populism addresses is visible on its pavements, with shirtless porters sleeping under glittering skyscrapers.

"If our ruling party lacks vigilance about its problems in renewing its legitimacy, it could be more serious than June 4," retired official Zhang Musheng said in an interview, referring to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. "It would break out not among students, but among workers, farmers and intellectuals."

'Right-hand man' Bo catapulted into the centre-stage of Chinese politics by dressing up economic reforms as 'freedom' and reviving revolutionary 'red songs' from the turbulent Cultural Revolution (1966-76) to enforce a show of unity and nationalism in his constituency of 32 million people.

Under Bo's diktat, students, officials and neighbourhood committees in Chongqing sing red songs at every public spectacle. All residents receive old communist verses on text messages. Bureaucrats are under orders to spend time living in the homes of peasants. Chongqingers can no longer watch prime-time soap operas and commercials on the main satellite channel which broadcasts endless propaganda. "It's very hard in a fierce market,'' admitted Guan Wenge, vice-president of the Chongqing Broadcasting Group.

A Chongqing propaganda official cited India to defend the red campaign. "What I saw when I visited India is not good from the outside,'' spokesman Zhou Bo told HT. "Freedom should be founded on good management. Everything should be orderly.'' Zhou leaned back and sang Aawara hoon, from the 1950s movie that won communist approval for glorifying socialism. "Aawara is a red song,'' he argued. "Red songs reflect the great crusade to make China independent and powerful. But we have to rethink the campaign to make it more acceptable.''

Li Bin, president of the state-owned Chongqing Hualong News also spoke of India's poverty. "The children in India are naked,'' his giggling translator interpreted. "They piss on the streets. There's a big rich-poor gap.''

But 'all Indians have inner peace,' conceded Li, repeating an observation heard among Chinese officials stumped by India's relatively moderate social turbulence. In China inflation and land seizures have led to an ever-rising number of protests, with government figures admitting to nearly 100,000 major police actions a year.

To ensure a local 'inner peace' Bo busted the extensive underbelly of Chongqing's mafia, arresting 405 gangs and over 4,000 suspects. He did not spare five-star hoteliers, property developers and corrupt police. By next year, half a million surveillance cameras set up at a cost of $ 3 billion will cover the city.

"Bo is a shiny political star. He's experimenting with what China should do in future,'' said Professor Bo Zhiyue, a Singapore-based expert on Chinese politics. "He may take some of these elements to Beijing. He'll be one of the most important players in the Politburo standing committee.''

The future leadership will grapple with the challenge of the history's largest wave of urbanisation and outbursts of anger by migrant workers over the unequal social security they receive.

During a visit to the city's industrial park, officials did not show off the symbols of Chongqing global footprint like freight trains that go all the way to Europe and plants that produce the world's personal computers. They drove to grey high-rises for low-rent housing and displayed two empty apartments with western-style interiors. They claimed it is China's largest low-rent public housing scheme aiming to cover a million families.

Towards the goal of doubling the urban core of Chongqing to 20 million in 10 years, farmers are being encouraged to give up land rights for compensation including guarantees of urban social security, an apartment and school admission.

Bo's officials hail the policies as 'freedom' though some intellectuals dare to disagree. "The distinctiveness of the Chongqing model is exaggerated,'" said politics professor Liu Yu in Beijing.

While Chongqing officials disparage India, they don't discuss their own pavement dwellers. Shifu Gen has slept on the pavement and cooked in a hot pot next to the toilet of a Yangtze cruise center for a decade. He's in the iconic 'bang bang' army of Chongqing porters who walk tens of kilometers daily carrying shopping bags strung on bamboo poles on the hilly roads of the former wartime capital. Asked if he admires Bo, he refused to comment.

First Published: Aug 20, 2011 23:42 IST