China delegates swoon at their proximity to power

November 12, 2012 - 9:34 PM
China Congress Dazzled Delegates

In this Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012 photo, Communist Party delegate Cai Cengma, center, in traditional Mongolian ethnic minority dress, walks with other delegates to the Great Hall of the People, where the opening session of the 18th Communist Party Congress is held in Beijing. Along with government officials, managers of state industries and military officers, delegates of the 18th Communist Party Congress also include migrant workers, peasants, factory technicians, teachers, doctors, artists and Olympic gold medalists. Many of the rank and file delegates are brought to Beijing to make the roughly 2,300-member congress more representative, and have no real political clout. They ratify decisions made by a few dozen party insiders in backroom deals. Still, they believe in the cause and swoon at the prestige of being chosen to be a national delegate. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

BEIJING (AP) — Tears welled in Li Jian's eyes whenever President Hu Jintao mentioned the environment in his speech to Communist Party delegates gathered in the Great Hall of the People during China's most important political event of the decade.

Hu's exhortation last week to create a "beautiful China" and to "cherish and love nature" spoke to the 55-year-old bioengineer's dearest concerns. Hours later, still brimming with emotion, she stood up during a staid discussion among fellow delegates, to underline the good news.

This is coming directly from party leader Hu, she told them. "This is not from some TV anchor or some youth group speech," she said at the meeting, open to reporters. "This means there's no doubt we will have a beautiful China. That is absolutely certain!"

Li is one of the rank-and-file delegates attending the Communist Party congress running through Wednesday that will start to install a new generation of leaders to run the world's No. 2 economy.

Delegates like Li have no real political clout. They ratify decisions made by a few dozen party insiders in backroom deals. There were brought to Beijing largely to make the roughly 2,300-member congress more representative, but they believe in the cause and swoon at the prestige of being chosen to be a delegate.

"This is a high honor, especially for those of us who are not government officials," Li said. "Any one of us who gets elected is the cream of the crop from each and every industry."

Along with senior party figures, government officials, managers of state industries and military commanders, delegates like Li include migrant workers, peasants, factory technicians, teachers, doctors, artists and Olympic gold medalists.

There's China's "most beautiful mother" — who shot to national fame when she caught someone else's 2-year-old daughter with her bare arms when the toddler fell from a 10th-floor window. Wu Juping became a symbol of selflessness after the July 2011 rescue crushed her left arm.

"I did what every mom would do," said Wu, who was then a quality control employee at the e-commerce giant Alibaba in eastern China's Hangzhou city.

Wu had a rose-red blazer tailored at her own expense for the congress. A fellow delegate, Yu Fuling, said she spent more than 3,000 yuan ($475) for a hot-pink jacket with green embroidery.

"You see a lot of bright hues of red, yellow and green from the delegates," Wu said in an interview. "This is such an important meeting that we want to host it in a happy, joyful mood, as the Chinese tradition goes."

Even if their power is limited, the delegates are successful and influential in their fields or communities. They typically know little about China's politics. Communists all, they are nominated by local party offices. Party personnel officers vet their qualifications and sound out colleagues to evaluate their reputations.

Delegates are tasked with studying Hu's speech — a long-prepared report summarizing progress and outlining an agenda — so they can share it with local party members. They attend presentations showcasing China's achievements under the party's leadership, and hold sessions by region to air suggestions. There is no voice of opposition.

Li, like other delegates, received early drafts of Hu's report. She made suggestions for the section on ecological development and was overjoyed to see even stronger wording in the final version that Hu delivered Thursday.

"The report is truly a collective work of the whole party's wisdom," Li said.

After the congress, the delegates help spread the message from the top leadership, known as Zhongyang, or "party central."

"We are engaged with the masses," Wu said. "We are the bridge between the party central and the grassroots."

Most significantly, the delegates will select the Central Committee, the party's policy-setting body of around 350 full and non-voting alternate members. Usually there are a few more candidates than seats. At the last congress in 2007, there were about 108 candidates for every 100 seats, so votes can affect the outcome slightly.

The Central Committee then chooses the leadership, though the real lineup is largely fixed through back-channel negotiations.

"The rank-and-file delegates are welcome to air their views, but they are also skillfully guided by the top echelons of the party to make the right decisions and elect the appropriate Central Committee members," said Steve Tsang of the University of Nottingham in Britain. "Party discipline means that there is no real scope for them to make what will be deemed by the party central as inappropriate choices."

Still, Li said she was taking her vote seriously. As one of the 2,268 national delegates for more than 82 million party members, Li technically is voting on behalf of 35,000 party members.

"It's very weighty," she said. Work experience, word of mouth, gender and region of origin will factor into how she votes, she said.

She brushed aside reports that two top slots are already settled: Vice President Xi Jinping is all but certain to replace Hu as party chief, and Li Keqiang will become premier. But she said she would support their election.

"They are super great," Li said. "They have been elected up through many levels, and they are accepted and recognized by the masses."

Li, 55, has an authoritative voice but the look of a college student, with blue jeans, bangs and cascading black hair. Her backpack has two frog pendants, which she equates with a healthy ecology.

She develops drought-resistant varieties of plants meant to hold back the Gobi Desert in Ningxia province, to protect the farmland China needs to feed its large population. She heads a national laboratory of seedling bioengineering, and her projects have won numerous awards, including from the Hong Kong-based Ho Leung Ho Lee Foundation.

Li joined the party as a teenager even though she lived through some of its radical excesses. Her father had been condemned as a rightist and banished to one of China's poorest regions, Ningxia province, where she joined him in the 1960s. She later was sent to another community in Ningxia where she worked alongside farmers by day and taught girls to read by night.

"To join the party at 18 was more glorious than being a pop star today," she said.

She went to college in 1978 and was assigned upon graduation to the Ningxia Forestry Institute. After a two-year research stint in Oslo, Norway, she became the head of the institute in 1995.

"I love the Chinese Communist Party. There is no reason not to love it," Li said. "It gives you space and lets you grow."