Chinese President Hu Jintao took the podium in the Great Hall of the People Thursday for his final speech as the country’s paramount leader before he gives up the post of general secretary of the Communist Party to Xi Jinping, his anointed heir.
Mr. Hu, who has rarely, if ever, shown emotion in public, was his stoic self as he delivered a lengthy summation of his decade in office, highlighting the country’s impressive economic achievements during that time, but also admitting that corruption and income inequality were growing into problems big enough to threaten the Communist Party’s grip on power.
Length of speech
Mr. Hu spoke for 101 minutes, according to The Globe and Mail’s wristwatch. The printed edition of the speech was 46 pages, though not all of it was read out loud.
Wow, that’s a long time.
It made this former parliamentary correspondent long for the brevity and wit of Question Period. The word “Castroesque” was being thrown around the upper reaches of the Great Hall of the People, but that really wasn’t fair. Fidel went for a full seven hours and 10 minutes at Cuba’s 1986 Communist Party Congress, and on another occasion kept the UN General Assembly on shifting in its seats for 4 1/2 hours while delivering a speech entitled The Denouncement of Imperialism and Colonialism. Mr. Hu’s speech to the 2007 Party congress was actually about twice as long as Thursday’s monologue.
Amount of time Mr. Hu spent expounding on his “Scientific Outlook on Development”
This scribe’s watch is of the analogue variety (and frankly I stopped paying complete attention at around the 60-minute mark) but by my count he raised his theory on at least 14 different occasions. It’s part of an effort to raise Mr. Hu’s key concept – essentially, that China needs to downshift from constant revolution to something more measured and orderly – to the pantheon of ideas that already includes Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents.”
What else did he talk about?
Well, he name-checked his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Deng Xiaoping seven times each, and mentioned Mao Zedong five times. He used the term “socialism with Chinese characteristics” – code for modern China’s Leninist political system that no longer adheres to socialist economic theory – 59 times. “Corruption” came up on 11 occasions, “Marxism,” eight. One topic that appeared to fall out of favour was “intra-party democracy.” Once a pet theory of Mr. Hu’s, it only came up three times.
What do you read into that?
I pity whoever has to write the speech. Every new Chinese leader tries to add their ideas to the sacred pile of everything that went before them. It’s like trying to tack new books onto the Bible, while some of the apostles are staring angrily at you.
Line that got the biggest applause
“No one in a position of power is allowed in any way to take one’s own words as the law, place one’s own authority above the law or abuse the law.” Somewhere, Bo Xilai squirmed.
Most direct moment
“We will never copy a Western political system.”
Moment that had China’s neighbours looking up Barack Obama’s mobile number
“We should enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power.” Read: We should keep sending our boats into waters the Japanese, Filipinos and Vietnamese think are theirs.
What he didn’t say
One topic that didn’t get raised in 101 minutes was China’s widely hated one-child policy. Many Chinese had been hoping Mr. Hu would address it after a think tank that advises the government suggested it was time to abandon the rule.
Best line that appears in the written version of Mr. Hu’s speech, but wasn’t read out loud
“Leading officials at all levels … should both exercise strict self-discipline and strengthen education and supervision over their families and their staff; and they should never seek any privilege.” That would have been awkward to say with Vice-President Xi Jinping and Premier Wen Jiabao sitting on the stage with him. Both have been embarrassed by newspaper exposés alleging their families have accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars in wealth and assets.
Wait – some of the it wasn’t read out loud?
Yeah, that bit is perplexing. It’s not like Mr. Hu was worried his speech would be too long – once you’re at 101 minutes, you may as well go for 115, I say.
So what happened?
Hard to know. We’ve already seen instances where Mr. Wen’s remarks (about the country’s need for more democracy) have been censored by state-controlled media. In this case, it’s possible that Mr. Hu submitted his full remarks to the Presidium of the congress – which includes his predecessor and rival, Jiang Zemin, as well as Mr. Wen and Mr. Xi – and that someone requested key parts not be read out loud on national television. To say the least, it’s interesting that there are two versions of the speech.
Hmmm. So, is Mr. Hu retired now?
Not by a long shot. While he steps down from the country’s most powerful post next week – general secretary of the Communist Party – in favour of Mr. Xi, Mr. Hu remains the country’s president until March. He may yet seek to retain influence by staying on as chairman of the country’s Central Military Commission longer than that, and he even if he doesn’t his “retirement” is likely to look something like Mr. Jiang’s: out of the public eye most of the time, but resurfacing whenever there’s a key decision to be made.