The Beijing Diaries, Day 3: 18th National Congress Begins!
8 November, 2012
The day is finally here. The opening of the 18th National Congress, which I’ve been writing about almost every freaking day for the last 8 months. And while the average Chinese person off the street doesn’t give a shit about this momentous five yearly event, the Communist Party leaders and the rest of the world certainly do.
I ended up leaving the hotel at 7:30 in the morning to walk to Wangfujing station and catch a subway (2 stops) to Tiananmen East. I was supposed to leave earlier but it took me a while to wake myself up after a less than ideal night of sleep. As it turned out, I probably could have left later. I got there by 8am, and it was still relatively quiet, with not a whole lot of press hanging around outside. I went into the Great Hall of the People (which really is a great hall — I’m just not sure it’s “of the people”) at around 8:30 and found a seat on the third floor, which is for writers. The second floor is for photographers and the first floor is for the 2,000+ congress delegates.
At 9am on the dot (those punctual communists!), the spokesperson for the congress officially declared it open, and out came onto the stage all of China’s political heavyweights, all those people I had been writing about for months, from outgoing leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao to new leader Xi Jinping, and ancient leader Jiang Zemin, who looked like he was already half mummified.
The whole point of the opening ceremony was for exiting party leader Hu Jintao to deliver his report from the 17th National Congress to the incoming 18th National Congress. Unlike previous years, they did not release the script to the press in advance — we were told we’d have to get them afterwards.
As the speech got underway, it became obvious why they did that. If the press had the script in advance, there’s no way they would have stayed for the entire duration of the 100-minute coma inducer (many didn’t anyway). Seriously, it was utterly brutal, not just because the content was 100% predictable and all about how great the party’s achievements were over the last decade, but it was delivered in Hu’s trademark monotone and with his expressionless face. I had hear rumors that the dude has zero personality but my theory is that he is a cyborg born out of a secret Chinese government experiment (after Mao Zedong) to create a leader who has no risk whatsoever of establishing a personality cult.
The only thing that kept the 3,000+ people in that hall from falling asleep was Hu’s tendency to periodically punctuate the end of a section of his report with an exclamation, like “blah blah blah…FOR THE PEOPLE!” or “blah blah blah…INTO THE FUTURE!” and everyone would wake up and burst into spontaneous applause.
I left the auditorium just before the end of the speech to get some water and to drag a copy of the speech. Even though people had been lining up for ages, as soon as the copies arrived the journalists just went crazy and rushed up to the front in typical Chinese fashion. The staff simply started tossing them out into the crowd like they were free T-shirts and the journalists started climbing over each other to get them. Naturally I managed to snatch one.
Before I left, the one other thing I was told by my bosses to check out was the so called “ritual girls” of the congress (essentially staff who serve water and stand around) who have the reputation of being the prettiest girls from all around China. I was told to see if there was a potential story to write about them, and to be honest, I was sorely disappointed with this year’s crew. Perhaps the party leaders made sure most of the girls were average looking to avoid officials from getting in sex scandals. They had more serious things to discuss, like how to convince the world they were working hard to stamp out corruption.