One would think from visiting bookstores in China that nothing important is occuring in China this year. Of course, later this year the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 18th Party Congress and select a new slate of leaders to take up positions in the Politburo Standing Committe, Politburo, Central Committee, and its top offices, such as the Organization Department, United Front, etc. The same transition occurs first at the provincial level and before that at the county and city levels. The replacement of Party leaders will be followed by replacement of government officials up and down the system. Probably around 20,000 officials will gain and lose posts through this transition.
This is a huge deal, more important than anything else going on in China this year. And it is being absolutely, 100% ignored by Chinese scholars and the media. There is not a single scholar in all of the Chinese mainland who has made a career out of analyzing Chinese elite politics. I've met academics who are quite knowledgeable about the leadership, and if they chose, could write impressive articles. But they write barely anything, at least within publications available in China.
Imagine if in United States the media and scholars didn't pay any attention to American elections and the political class. Of course, that seems like absolute nonsense. There are experts on American elections, the presidency, Congress, and lobbying. Then there are all the news stories, Sunday talk shows, blogging, and twittering, day and night, 365. All absent in China.
Except in Hong Kong. In this little tiny exception of a place, the 18th Party Congress is a huge topic for experts and the media. Go to any Hong Kong bookstore or newspaper stand on the side of the road and you will encounter dozens and dozens of books about China's leadership, their families, and potential developments in policy. In one store, I found a shelf with about 12 books.
It took me a while to sift through these, and I thought I had a good treasure trove. But then I turned around a found a whole other set of shelves, all with books about the leadership. A few steps away even more titles awaited me. If I had wanted, I could have bought 60-70 titles. I must admit that after looking through many of these books, I was not extremely impressed. The books had some basic info about the leaders, and made assertions of about so-and-so being part of Hu's faction and other so-and-so's part of Jiang Zemin's faction, and on and on. And the more I read, the less convinced I became in the accuracy of the claims. But at least there were claims and a discussion.
Back in Beijing? Zilch. I went to one of the city's best bookstores, Wansheng Shuyuan (万圣书院), just outside the south entrance to Tsinghua University. Overall not a bad bookstore, with lots of books on a host of subjects. But nothing on elite Chinese politics save the selected works of various leaders. The bookstore listed its Top Ten Sellers for May, and they were mainly about Chinese history and philosophy, not politics.
The window display of new and suggested titles was equally anodine. Nothing remotely related to the country's politics.
I was curious if I had missed something. So I asked a sales clerk if they had any books on the 18th Party Congress. Her reply, a simple, "no." I asked about books regarding elite politics, and she pointed me to the Politics section of the bookstore. What did I find? A lot of books on Chinese international relations and diplomacy, but nothing on elite politics.
I asked other sales clerks if anyone else had asked for books about the 18th Party Congress, and they answered either, "I don't know," or "it's unclear" (which means, "no, stop bothering me").
In one last attempt, I looked at the magazine rack to see what I could find. Again, nada. One magazine had what could only be described as an extremely boring story on Li Keqiang's recent tour of Europe.
The silence in China is deafening. The contrast with Hong Kong and other places with more open political discussion is stunning. Of course, there are tons of private conversations and gossip-trading going on, but nothing is occuring out in the open.
One is left to ask: Is this a healthy state of affairs for a political community and a country going not only through a political transition but through rapid economic and social development?