Cast your mind back to the dim and distant days of 2003, when President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao were the new kids on the block. After years of rule by Jiang Zemin and his nasty, greedy Shanghai clique, it was time for a change – time, indeed, to "put the people first."
During their first year in office, Hu and Wen attempted to burnish their image as kinder, gentler dictators with a flurry of slogans. One of them – "scientific development" – has stuck. In his speech to the National People’s Congress (NPC) last month, Wen promised to "thoroughly implement the scientific outlook on development."
But there was no mention of that other favorite slogan of old: "putting the people first." To be fair to Wen, he did promise to "improve people’s wellbeing," but it is strange that the old formula appears to have been dropped. Or perhaps not. For all the government’s pronounced concern for "the people," there was precious little evidence of them at this year’s NPC. There were plenty of party delegates dressed in identical black suits, and the usual smattering of officials from national minorities carefully decked out in ethnic colors.
But March’s gathering of the people’s representatives was as remote from the lives of ordinary people as it is every year. The important delegates arrived in shiny black Audis with tinted windows, while the smaller provincial representatives had to make do with a fleet of white coaches. As usual, the area around the Great Hall of the People and Tiananmen Square – normally thronged with tourists – were closed to the public. Come to Beijing in early March and you might mistake Tiananmen Square for a gigantic parking lot.
Beijingers are used to this state of affairs. The city may be theirs for most of the year, but they know from experience they will be excluded from anything of political importance. During the 60th celebrations for the founding of the so-called "People’s Republic" last October, locals were instructed to keep off the streets and watch the tanks and marching girls on television.
That’s right – China’s rulers didn’t even bother to invite the people to their own birthday party!
As a rule, there are few mainlanders more interested in politics than Beijing cabbies, and even they consider the NPC a great stonking borefest. But what grates far more than the interminable speechifying clogging the airwaves are Beijing’s thrombotic roads.
The capital is a famously gridlocked city at the best of times, but when the NPC circus rolls into town, you can guarantee that the simplest journey will take five times longer than usual. Why? Because the police close all the roads in central Beijing to ensure that the delegates are not a second late for dinner. This probably wasn’t a problem when everyone rode bicycles. But with 4 million cars on Beijing’s roads, closing a few major thoroughfares is a recipe for chaos right across the city.
There is, however, a simple solution to the problem. Just a few yards from the south exit of the Great Hall of the People, considerably closer to the building than the rows of black Audis and white coaches, is a handy public transport facility known as Tiananmen West subway station. Yet, strangely, not a single "representative of the people" at this year’s NPC seemed to know about it. It’s all very well to rule the rabble, it seems, but it certainly isn’t the done thing to share a subway carriage with them.
National People’s Congress? Bah! Humbug!