English (United Kingdom)Tiếng Việt (Vietnamese)
Monday, 05 November 2012 08:45

A Party’s Over, but Nostalgia Lingers

No more red lanterns and flags. Forget the vast swath of red carpet, the smiling hostesses in matching outfits and the pot of towering multicolored flowers. On a recent blustery afternoon in Tiananmen Square, as autumn leaves blanketed nearby parks, there was little evidence remaining of the weeklong political pageant that had taken place this month in the Great Hall of the People.

In mid-November, the square was closed to the public for more than a week as 2,268 Communist Party delegates converged on the hall for the extravaganza known as the 18th Party Congress. Xi Jinping and six other men in dark suits officially made their debut as the new leaders of China after months of factional infighting and back-room politicking. Those politicians have since demonstrated a keen desire to leave behind the pageantry and dive straight into the process of consolidating power and laden with standard party language.

The departure of the congress, though, has left some of Beijing’s 20 million or so residents with a sense of nostalgia.

Liu Ji, 63, was one of the many sprightly retirees called upon by security officials this month to work as informal traffic cops, taking to the streets to keep unruly pedestrians and drivers in line. In a city with more than five million registered cars, it was not the most relaxing task. But Ms. Liu, a longtime Communist Party member, said it was an honor to play a role during the weeklong event, even if it meant tackling the city’s nightmarish congestion equipped with only a red armband and a flag.

“To help out even just a little is a glorious feeling,” she said.

But now, the heart of this ancient capital has returned to what passes for normal these days: hazy gray skies above the granite expanse; crowds of tourists, both Chinese and foreign, milling around and posing for photographs; and uniformed security officers watching them carefully in front of the Forbidden City. (Less familiar was the sight of some of those officers zipping around the square on two-wheeled, Segway-like vehicles as the ageless Mao Zedong gazed down from his portrait.)

Elsewhere, pirated DVDs and English-language books on China have reappeared on shelves after having been relegated to storerooms in some shops. Several prominent activists who were asked to leave Beijing during the conclave have slowly found their way back to their homes.

And the annual Beijing Marathon, which had been postponed for weeks because of the congress, finally took place last Sunday. For the 30,000 or so participants who ran in it on a morning when the United States Embassy air-quality monitoring machine rated the air as “hazardous,” it was just another typical polluted day.

As for Ms. Liu, she has gone back to spending her days in her traditional hutong alleyway home near the city center. With the bitter Beijing winter approaching and the chilly winds sweeping in from Mongolia, she said she was still optimistic that her No. 1 concern — having local officials switch the heating in her home from coal-fired stoves to electric radiators — would be addressed by the district government.

Her faith in China’s leaders was reaffirmed after she saw the ease and confidence with which Mr. Xi delivered his inaugural speech on Nov. 15, the day after the close of congress. “And his Mandarin Chinese — when is the last time we heard a leader speak so clearly?” she asked.

But her only son, Li Shuo, 33, is a member of the generation of Chinese who, having grown up in more prosperous times than their parents, are asking deeper questions about whether the leaders can deliver on promises of a better quality of life and improved human rights.

Mr. Li, a sound engineer, says his biggest hope is for the government to dismantle or limit the system of “re-education through labor,” which allows for detention without trial. The system, which had been criticized by many Chinese, re-emerged this year as a subject of national debate when a mother in Hunan Province was sent to a labor camp after campaigning for harsher sentences for several men who had abducted, raped and forced into prostitution her 11-year-old daughter. The story provoked outrage on China’s most popular microblog, prompting provincial authorities eventually to release the mother.

Many Chinese, of course, do not follow politics as closely as Mr. Li, who keeps track of news by reading microblogs. Even in Beijing, apathy runs high, a product of a system that allows for little, if any, citizen participation in the selection of its leaders.

Nonetheless, there are faint hopes for change here. Zhao Ye, 34, a native of Beijing, is a business consultant who also happens to be a member of a Christian church that is not sanctioned by the party. “We don’t know how the new leadership is going to address the issue of religious practice in China,” Ms. Zhao said.

She added that church services were not affected much during the congress, but that church leaders remained “very alert.”

“Everyone is a little cautious right now,” she said.

Back in Tiananmen Square, despite the large-scale cleanup in recent weeks, some references to the 18th Party Congress remain. There is, for instance, an electronic message that pops up as part of a montage displayed on two giant screens that take up the width of the square. “Fully implement the spirit of the 18th Party Congress,” it reads, “and make a great effort to build a basically well-off society.”

Edward Wong contributed reporting.

Last modified on Monday, 05 November 2012 09:50