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Beijing looks as if the government declared martial law in the midst of a floral convention. An obscenely large flower pot sits in the centre of Tiananmen Square, uplifting red banners bearing political slogans adorn every flyover, while Chinese-made Humvees cruise the streets and tens of thousands of policemen and “stability maintenance staff” outnumber ordinary pedestrians.
The paranoia of the Communist party extends to ping-pong balls, balloons, carrier pigeons, fruit knives and computer batteries, all of which are banned as potential tools of sedition during the party’s week-long 18th national congress, which opened on Thursday.
The congress is held every five years but this one is particularly important because at the end of it a handful of ageing men with shiny dyed black hair and dark suits will walk out on to the stage led by a new president, Xi Jinping, who is expected to govern China for the next decade.
If he and his comrades make it to the end of that term, they will claim the record for the longest unbroken rule by an authoritarian political party, a record currently held by the Soviet Union, at 69 years.
But in Beijing’s universities and watering holes, and even in the corridors of power this week, a surprisingly large number of people are whispering doubts that the party will manage to break that record.
I spoke to a professor of politics at one of China’s most prestigious universities who assured me that within three years the Chinese people would take to the streets to demand that the government relinquish power. I listened to a group of drivers, whose job is to ferry diplomats and senior party officials around Beijing’s gridlocked streets, cursing in earthy Mandarin about the “turtle’s egg” Communist party and how it wouldn’t be around in five years.
Most surreal of all was when I found myself in one of Beijing’s hottest nightclubs raising a glass of expensive cognac with a recently retired senior officer in the Chinese police and a wealthy property developer as they heartily toasted the downfall of the party.
As beautiful people twirled to the thumping beat on the dance floor next to them, these two beneficiaries of the system cursed the greedy corrupt officials whose palms they had to keep well lubricated but who still demanded exorbitantly high taxes to fill state coffers.
In fact, things had become so bad for the property developer that he had come up with an ingenious way to outsource his bribery. He now organises private high-stakes poker games with well-connected officials but hires a professional player to represent him. He allows the officials to play on credit, shows up to drink a few toasts and play a few rounds, tells his representative poker pro who to lose big to and then goes home to bed in the interests of preserving his liver and his sanity.
The Communist party and its leaders are well aware that its subjects are becoming less patient and more demanding and that its minions are getting out of control.
On Thursday, in his speech to the assembled nomenklatura of the Communist party, President Hu Jintao acknowledged that “social problems have increased markedly” under his decade of rule.
He also warned that if the party failed to curb corruption, “it could prove fatal to the party and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state”.
The word among the politically well-connected in Beijing is that Li Keqiang, the man who will be confirmed as China’s next premier at the end of next week, has started recommending to his colleagues that they read Alexis de Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution.
One might read a few things into that but some Chinese academics see it as a warning – de Tocqueville blamed the 1789 French revolution in part on the fact that the bourgeoisie inspired envy among the masses while the nobles elicited scorn.
Popular wisdom has often blamed the revolution on the terrible living conditions of the unwashed masses and the “let them eat cake” arrogance of the elite. But the widely accepted theory now is that the French Revolution was one of rising expectations that eventually could not be met.
After 30 years of breakneck growth and rapidly rising living standards, the Chinese people’s expectation that their lives will keep getting better is already very high. It is now up to Mr Xi, Mr Li and their comrades to meet those expectations.