When the seven black-haired, presumably black-rinsed, men on China’s new standing committee of the politburo were unveiled on Thursday, attired in the Communist Party’s current answer to Mao jackets – dark blue business suits with matching red tie – it sent an important message to the Chinese people and the world: Don’t mess with "success".
There is nothing in the career of Xi Jinping – who is the Communist Party’s General Secretary and is set to become president in March – that would suggest any cause for optimism over reform of the world’s most powerful one-party state – not even the hit song On the Plains of Hope of his previously more famous wife, Peng Liyuan. Nor is there anything in the coverage of the other appointees that suggests hope for political reform, for improved human rights or democracy.
The best that can be said of each of these men, and the office is gender-exclusive, is that they kept their heads down over their long careers as functionaries. There is no individual narrative of hope, such as is represented by U.S. President Barack Obama, little to distinguish them from the army of other functionaries whence they came. Conformity seems to be the overarching credential for advancement within the Communist Party.
One of the men, Liu Yunshan, has a record as a propagandist and for enforcing rigid controls on the Internet. Zhang Dejiang is known as an enforcer who has ordered underlings to swear oaths of loyalty to him, and ordered the media to pretend the SARS crisis was not happening. Wang Qishan is seen as an economic reformer, which is some consolation.
No doubt many Chinese, and others around the world, hope that one of these shadowy, colourless men will have the personal courage, the humanity, and ultimately the power, to begin the process of reform that is so long overdue. It is time that China fulfilled its destiny and earned its place as a global leader, not merely for the size of its economy and its military, but because of its moral leadership. The outlook, however, is unpromising.