PATROLS are hunting for “reactionary” slogans appearing on the streets, internet censors work overtime, police are stepping up the surveillance of dissidents, and officials scour bookshelves for samizdat works. As the Communist Party prepares for a once-a-decade turnover of its leadership this month, officials are battling to stem rumours about what the leaders are up to, and to sweep away evidence of public discontent. Revelations that the family of the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, has acquired a colossal fortune during his decade in office have come at a bad time. So too has violent unrest in a large port-city.
Since the late 1980s the party has never faced so many scandals and crises this close to a leadership transition. As The Economist went to press the party’s 370-strong central committee began a meeting in Beijing to make final preparations for the handover extravaganza that will begin on November 8th. This will involve a party congress attended by more than 2,200 delegates, followed a few days later by the crowning of a new Politburo. Mr Wen is among those retiring from it (he formally steps down as prime minister in March).
An investigative report by the New York Times on October 25th has blown a hole in Mr Wen’s self-cultivated reputation as a thrifty man of the people from a modest background. The newspaper furnished evidence that close family members had acquired wealth of some $2.7 billion. This came hard on the heels of one of the party’s biggest scandals in decades that resulted in the purge of a Politburo member, Bo Xilai, for allegedly covering up a murder and for his family’s involvement in massive corruption. In June Bloomberg, an American news service, published the results of its own investigation into the business dealings of the family of Xi Jinping, who will take over from Hu Jintao as party chief this month and as president in March. It showed that Mr Xi’s relatives had also amassed considerable wealth.
The investigations confirm what has long been widely rumoured about the country’s ruling families (though the reported scale of their wealth stuns even hardened cynics). Combined with the party’s own allegations against Mr Bo, who until early this year was considered a likely candidate for one of the party’s highest positions in the upcoming shuffle, they confirm a nexus between wealth and power at the very top of the system. Though the conflicts of interest are evident, neither the New York Times nor Bloomberg accuses the leaders themselves of wrongdoing in connection with their families’ business affairs. But in a country rife with discontent over a growing gap between rich and poor, their findings compound public cynicism. China’s censors have blocked Bloomberg’s website since June, and now have now done the same to the sites in English and Chinese of the New York Times. A foreign-ministry spokesman accused the paper of that old fall-back, “ulterior motives”, suggesting it was out to smear China and foment unrest.
Certainly, the internet is frustrating the party’s efforts to control public opinion and stifle dissent during November’s meetings in the capital. This is China’s first leadership shuffle to be conducted in the social-media era. Twitter is blocked in China, but similar home-grown services are immensely popular and hard to crack down on—though China’s internet police have been frantically trying. Consider one measure of their concern: searches for even the prime minister’s family name (which also means “warm”) in combination with other words such as “assets” are now blocked on Chinese microblogs. So too are searches for “prime minister” together with “clan”. In a similar vein, China Digital Times, a media-monitoring website, says censors have been trying for at least a month to stop the media from saying any more about the political career of Liang Wen’gen, one of China’s richest businessmen who is a delegate to the party congress. The Chinese press had earlier reported that Mr Liang might become the first private entrepreneur to be appointed to the party’s central committee. Private-business owners had come to be cautiously welcomed into the party. Now any hint of a link between the party and wealth appears to be taboo.
Censors have been equally strenuous in their efforts to block news of protests involving thousands of people in October in the port city of Ningbo, about 150 kilometres (90 miles) south of Shanghai. The demonstrations were over plans to expand a chemical plant which residents feared could poison the environment. After several days of unrest, including violent clashes between police and demonstrators,
the government announced on October 28th that the project had been halted. Party leaders are obsessed with stability at this crucial political juncture. (Even Beijing’s taxis have been ordered to lock their rear windows, apparently to prevent passengers from throwing out dissident leaflets.) Ningbo’s turmoil must have been more than usually worrisome. In the build-up to the last leadership transition, a decade ago, the party’s biggest fear was of protests involving blue-collar workers whom state-owned companies were laying off by the millions. Today the party has long ceased to regard blue-collar support as critical to its grip on power. Instead, an emerging middle class is its most important bulwark. The protests in Ningbo were the latest in a series among middle-class urbanites that suggests this group cannot always be counted on. In July tens of thousands took to the streets in Shifang in the south-western province of Sichuan in opposition to a copper refinery. The same month similar numbers protested against a sewage pipeline in Qidong, not far from Shanghai. In both cases officials also gave in to the protesters’ demands.
These stresses, as well as external ones generated by a recently escalated feud with Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea, are doubtless complicating the struggles among senior leaders over the soon-to-be-unveiled line-up. It remains uncertain whether Hu Jintao will retain the powerful position of chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission. If he wants to stay on for a couple of years, as his predecessors did, he might use the party’s concerns about stability at home and abroad to justify retaining control of the army. The continuing influence of Mr Hu’s immediate predecessor, Jiang Zemin, is another complicating factor. Mr Hu and Mr Jiang are assumed to have a less than cosy relationship. Recent appearances by Mr Jiang, who is 86, appear aimed at signalling that he is still a force to be reckoned with. Mr Xi is thought to be closer to Mr Jiang than to the 69-year-old Mr Hu. But even after he takes over, he will have to be careful of both men.
The party’s attempts at media control have failed to stem a spate of articles in official newspapers highlighting what many liberal intellectuals perceive as mounting social tensions. They are calling for faster political reforms. The calls appear designed to press Mr Xi to be more daring than the ultra-cautious Mr Hu. The writings of the 19th-century French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, have been enjoying an unusual revival in bookshops and in the debates of intellectual bloggers. His argument that revolutions tend to occur not when conditions are harshest but when they are improving appears to have struck a chord among those fretting about where the country is heading.