On the eve of the Lunar New Year, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chief and President Hu Jintao visited the prefecture-level city of Baoding in Hebei province (Xinhua News Agency, February 3). The annual spring festival pilgrimage has been used by Chinese leaders as a national platform for speaking to the Chinese people and an opportunity to hone in on important political messages. These appearances are loaded with political symbolisms that offer insight into the administration’s concerns in the year ahead. This year was no exception.
For instance, at the outset of 2010 as negotiators from China and Taiwan were in the process of finalizing plans for the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), Hu used the occasion to meet with Taiwanese businesspeople working in China’s agricultural sector. This move was widely seen as a shot across the bow to assuage Taiwanese farmers’ concern about the impending deal (See “Hu’s New Year Charm Offensive toward Taiwan,” China Brief, February 18, 2010).
Coming on the heel of Hu’s much-touted state visit to the United States in late January, Hu’s pilgrimage to Baoding was no less short of symbolism than in previous years. A point not lost on the two sides during Hu’s visit was the emphasis on stability. In reference to Sino-U.S. relations, President Obama noted: “That is something that can help create stability, order, and prosperity around the world, and that’s the kind of partnership that we’d like to see.” A catch not alluding observers is in the name of the city that Hu visited, Baoding, which includes the Chinese characters that stand for “maintaining stability” (United Daily News [Taiwan], February 8).
Hu’s decision to spend the New Year in Baoding is also highlighted by the fact that he did not visit the provincial capital, Shijiazhuang. While Hu’s itinerary was simple—it reportedly included a visit to a bus station, ostensibly to bless spring festival travels; a People’s Armed Police unit to display the chairman’s concern for Chinese forces; and the base of Wolf’s Tooth Mountain (langya shan) to reinforce political staunchness—all these calculated appearances seem to reinforce Hu’s message about maintaining stability (United Daily News, February 8).
According to some observers, the backdrop of the crisis unfolding throughout the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the destabilizing situations closer to home in Zhejiang province and Hubei province may have also prompted the supremo to decide to spend his new year in Baoding. To be sure, Baoding is situated along the outskirts of Beijing municipality, and the home of the military’s elite force, the 38th Mechanized Group Army, which is the closest military unit protecting the nerve center of the party headquarters; in addition to the PAP’s 113th division, which also serves Beijing (United Daily News, February 8).
President Hu’s emphasis on stability in the annual New Year pilgrimage is also happening against the backdrop of growing calls for political reforms. Party leaders appear to be seriously thinking about the changes needed to cope with the very rapid socio-economic changes in Chinese society. Indeed, there is widespread public resentment over inequalities that have deepened in recent years within China.
In late January, a group called the Yanan Children Association (yaan ernui lianyihui), whose members include children of senior party officials who joined the party before 1949, convened a rare public meeting and issued a letter to the 18th National Congress calling on it to initiate political reforms and hold direct elections within the party for some low-ranking and high-level positions, as well as politburo committees (China Times [Taiwan], February 7; United Daily News, February 7). According to unconfirmed reports, the association’s president is Hu Muying, who is the daughter of Hu Qiaomu, and members include Chairman Mao’s daughter Li Min, Zhou Enlai’s niece Zhou Bingde, Ren Bishi’s daughter Ren Yuangfang, Lu Dingyi’s son Lu Jianjian, Guo Morou’s daughter Guo Shuying, among many others.
As the 18th Party Congress approaches (scheduled for the fall of 2012), the wholesale personnel changes will have important implications on the orientation of the party, given that more than 60 percent of the Central Committee and about half of the Politburo are expected to vacate their seats for newcomers at the congress. As recent events suggest, the jockeying for power and influence is underway and progressive-minded as well as anti-reform factions within the CCP are engaged in a struggle. President Hu’s lunar New Year message underscores this growing concern among the Chinese leadership that instability is on the rise. How that might translate into meaningful political reforms in the year ahead remains to be seen.