All change as Chinese face game of their life

The Communist Party Congress this week has global significance as a pubescent superpower flexes its muscles ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

It may not be a pretty sight, but the outside world needs to take a long, hard look at the Chinese Communist Party this week. The world's biggest political organisation, which boasts more members than the UK population, will hold a national congress from tomorrow and the outcome has probably never had more significance.

The Beijing Olympics next August and the 17th Communist Party Congress form bookends on a period of less than a year that will shape perceptions of China for decades. Compared to the sporting dramas expected at next summer's Games, the theatre at the Great Hall of the People this week will not make for exciting viewing, but it is the most important political gathering for five years.

History suggests more than a few elderly political heavyweights will doze at their desks during speeches.

Most of the important decisions will already have been made in advance. A few shifts will be made in the line-up of the Politburo, but President Hu Jintao will almost certainly be elected for a second term and his policy of 'scientific development' will probably be written into the party charter.

Why then the need for such careful scrutiny? The main reason is China is a pubescent superpower. Still growing fast, there is considerable uncertainty about how it will mature. The Olympics will be used to show off its new muscle, but the Congress is a chance to look into its head. Given the levels of secrecy there is only so much to be seen, but the effort of looking inside is crucial.

Judged by appearances alone, China is a country transformed. Most first-time western visitors to Beijing are astonished to discover a city that bears no relation to their preconceptions. Far from the communist stereotype of a dull, poor, tightly-controlled nation they find a country that is chaotic, fast-changing, modern and almost as full of bars, clubs and coffee shops as the average European capital.

For the Olympics next year, Beijing is expecting half a million tourists. It has spared no expense to impress them with the speed and scale of its development.

In one of the great urban makeovers in history, swaths of the city have been knocked down and rebuilt in the past four years. The job is nearly done. The cranes and scaffolding are coming down. Foreign journalists are being invited to newly or nearly completed mega-projects almost every month. In August, we were shown the spectacular 'Bird's Nest' Olympic Stadium; last month, it was the new dragon-shaped airport terminal, which will be the biggest in world; and two weeks ago, the giant titanium-and-glass egg formally known as the National Grand Theatre.

These visits and openings are co-ordinated by the propaganda department of the Communist Party. The Olympics is an unprecedented opportunity for the party to show off its achievements in lifting 400 million people out of poverty. Never mind that much of this has been done with foreign investment and at a huge cost to the environment; the party wants to show that it has a new model to offer the world. Hu's concept of 'scientific development' promises rapid economic growth that is environmentally sustainable and socially harmonious.

Stability comes before all else, which conveniently means the party must stay in power with zero tolerance for any form of opposition. There has been no hint of a political opening ahead of the Congress. True to its track record, the party has stifled debate ahead of the meeting, clamping down harder than usual on the domestic media, detaining or arresting dissidents and blocking internet sites that referred to the Congress in anything other than the sanctioned form.

But there have been huge changes and not just on the outside. People have more freedom to spend and travel than ever. Thanks to the internet, they also have more information, despite the best efforts of the censors and filtering equipment that make up the Great Firewall of China. Delegates at the Congress will be well aware of these changes, but whether they reflect them in policy and speeches will help to determine the fate of the party.

Nor is the Olympics a one-way street of political influence. While China will try to assert itself as a new model of global development, opponents and the outside world will also see more and demand more of China. The coming year will be a tense one in Taiwan, where President Chen Shui-bian is pushing for constitutional reforms that China sees as a move towards de facto independence - something it says it will resist with force. Chen, who is at the end of his maximum term, has little to lose and he may gamble that China is so worried about the Olympics it will compromise rather than start a conflict that would overshadow the Games. The Dalai Lama will also look for some concrete results from his emissaries' years of talks with Beijing. If there is no agreement over the future of Tibet before the Olympics, he may wonder whether it is worth continuing the negotiations.

China may wonder if the political price it has to pay for the Olympics is worth it. Civil rights groups will push harder for reform in the coming year. In the latest attempt to use the Games, Human Rights Watch called last week for a moratorium on the death penalty ahead of the Olympics.

Beijing has shown a willingness to compromise and take into account international opinion. The impact on foreign policy is already evident from North Korea to Sudan to Burma. Gone are the days when China could get away with vetoing or abstaining from every UN Security Council resolution aimed at criticising or punishing other countries for human rights abuses. Last year, Beijing signed up to sanctions against its old ally North Korea after Kim Jong-il went ahead with its first nuclear test. And, this month, China surprised many observers by agreeing to a statement condemning Burma's crackdown on anti-government protesters. It has also reportedly put distance between itself and Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Most significantly, it put pressure on Sudan to accept a peacekeeping force after threats by US activists to call for a boycott of the 'Genocide Olympics'.

None of these measures goes as far as Europe and America would like, nor are they all being implemented because of the Olympics. But they imply recognition by China that there are norms of global behaviour and governments can be held accountable if they transgress. More should be expected. Thirty thousand foreign journalists are expected for the Games. They will push and probe and expose China like never before.

For this reason - and after a concerted campaign by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China and foreign embassies - the government relaxed its controls at the start of this year. Under new Olympics-period regulations, correspondents are no longer obliged to get permission every time we leave our home base, which - in theory - means we will be arrested less often. Detentions are still far too frequent to say China has lived up to its promise to give the media complete freedom to report on the Games.

According to the state media, there will also be unprecedented access to the party congress for the foreign media. It remains to be seen what that means in a country that organises one press conference a year for its Prime Minister and none for its President.

Political reform still lags far behind the economic changes. However dull, the old style one-party politics of the congress needs to be placed next to the modern, dynamic nation that will be on show during the Olympics. Both represent this complex fast-changing nation. ( Observer )

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