Changing of the Red Guard

President XI Jinping will have to contend with a increasingly technologically savvy China

Over the last two weeks, Chinese government officials have gathered in Beijing for the National People’s Congress (NPC), and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). In Chinese, this gathering is known as the “Two Meetings”— an annual assembly that puts forth national-level political decisions.

This year’s meetings marked the once-in-ten-year transition of state figureheads. Under President HU Jintao and Premier WEN Jiabao, the past decade has been most notably characterized by large-scale growth. There’s been the darling infrastructure projects,  like the Three-Gorges Dam and the high-speed railway network; the push for increased global prominence, such as China’s entry to the World Trade Organization and the 2008 Olympics; and of course, the  high national GDP growth, which averaged 11%. Canada’s average for this period, by the way, was roughly 2%.

Last week, President HU (pronounced “WHO”) handed over the reins of power to XI Jinping (last name pronounced “SHE;” hopefully his name will not engender too many headline jokes a la Michael Scott). XI brings to the table a charisma that the previous two generations of Chinese leaders severely lacked. Plus, a modern political PR machine that has aided in molding a much more affable and “of the people” narrative. AND, a super star wife, who, in addition to her singing fame, has been working on HIV and TB issues since 2005, most recently as the World Health Organization’s Global Ambassador.

Such assets should serve XI well as he charts new ground for a China that has increasingly demanded more from government officials. In particular, Chinese netizens have been pivotal and brazen in exposing salacious stories. There’s been public outbursts. Corruption. And of course, A LOT of (very awkward) sexual exploits. Some of the images widely circulated on Weibo by China’s microbloggers are utterly cringe-worthy. In comparison, the Weiner photos of 2011 make American politicians look like prudes.

Most striking, such online activities have catalyzed action.

If the internet is providing a vehicle for airing popular discontent, then XI has already positioned himself to employ this new venue for governmental reform and public good. During a tour of heavily-industrialized southern China in December 2012, XI was widely reported as going against the grain by insisting on only “Four Dishes and A Soup” instead of the lavish banquets that are par for the course.

Microbloggers quickly picked up the slogan, and soon after, the movement was galvanized into political action under the “Clean Plate Campaign.” Here in the provinces, I have witnessed the changes to ordering practices among government public health workers and taken part in related discussions. On a broader scale, initial reports suggest massive reductions in official banquets, especially right before the Chinese New Year festivities.

It might seem like a government anti-waste campaign that focuses on food placates the masses while completely avoiding more systemic, damaging political problems. It is hard to say. And it would certainly be a mistake to conclude that XI is set on completely changing the status quo, as evidenced by the January South China Morning Post debacle.

Yet, the case of cleaning plates does point to a new way of gathering information and implementing widespread changes. Cyber sleuths and everyday private detectives, armed with sneaky camera-phones, image editors, and internet accounts, now provide an important way from which people, within and outside of China, come to know what’s happening in the Middle Kingdom. Including the Chinese Communist Party.

President XI will face many difficult challenges in the next ten years. The internet, it would seem, may offer both insights on how he is doing, as well as some valuable solutions.

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