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In the political theatre of China, the real drama is offstage

Chinese hostesses, who serve the delegates of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and National People’s Congress, have souvenir photos taken in front of the Great Hall of the People during sessions of the CPPCC and NPC held in Beijing, March 4, 2014.

Andy Wong/Associated Press

As an act of political theatre it will be a good one, like it always is. This Wednesday, rows of suits will wander in to Beijing's Great Hall of the People, which adjoins Tiananmen Square to the west. Mixed in will be representatives of the country's 55 minorities, who typically dress in traditional garb, all assembling to decide the future of China.

That, at least, is the role of the National People's Congress as it is defined in the constitutional papers that often do a terrible job of actually defining China. What the congress has typically offered instead is a chance for some of China's best connected and richest elites – by last year's count, 83 U.S. dollar billionaires walk among the delegates to the congress and parallel Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference – to get together and party. And they have, in the past, done so with a kind of garish style, with meals for five hitting a tidy 45,000 yuan, or $8,100 in today's Canadian dollars.

But China's political theatre has a new chief director these days, in the form of President Xi Jinping, and there are signs that this year's manufactured drama is taking a very different shape. Mr. Xi has assiduously cultivated an image as a leader bent on weeding out corruption and bringing reform, and this week will be his chance to shine. Local media is already giving shape to the new narrative. In a report last week, the Beijing Times detailed the efforts underway at the Beijing International Hotel to ensure the public doesn't get the wrong impression.

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Fancy dishes have been stricken from menus, as has most western food. It will be replaced by snacks with "local characteristics," including Xi'an mutton and chunks of bread in soup. One doubts many dinner tabs will run $1,500 per person – at least not those anyone will admit to.

Then there's the water. No more will waitresses provide attentive tea service, ensuring no delegate's cup ever goes empty. Instead, tea will be replaced by bottles of mineral water. And not just any bottles: each will come with a sticker bearing the name of its intended drinker. That drinker won't be able to get a second bottle until the first is dry.

Lest those remarkable details go unnoticed, the government has also taken steps to ensure every step of the two-week legislative conference is reported. Recent weeks have seen the creation of roughly 100 verified Weibo accounts, on Chinese social media platforms. Each belongs to a different spokesman who will keep the news flow running. The capital was adamant they would be put to good use. "We will neither be like zombies nor act only for show," said Wang Hui, director of Press Office of Beijing Municipal Government.

"These are efforts by the party to try to gain a greater control over the narrative of the meetings," said Russell Leigh Moses, dean of the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies.

Still, it's worth probing the counterpoint to the common perception that the National People's Congress is merely a rubber-stamping outfit, one that comes to present an air of authenticity to decisions already made by people like Mr. Xi.

There is a "drama behind the curtains," Mr. Moses argues. "Some of this has already been decided, and it will be announced. But a good deal is still being fought over, and will be in the coming days." In particular, Mr. Xi faces the challenges of implementing a series of economic reforms that he sketched out last fall in very broad strokes. Local media have quoted him as saying, in English, "future reforms would require 10 per cent preparation and 90 per cent implementation." Mr. Moses suggests a better translation might be "experimentation" rather than "implementation." Either way, even experiments need to be legislated, and there are some intriguing ones underway in China today. Mr. Moses points to talk about a potential for some cities to try a dual administrative structure, where the Communist Party would be relegated only to certain decisions, opening more authority for non-party members. There's even talk of allowing citizens a voice on urban planning commissions, and assigning more power to lower ranks of government. It is, for now, unclear whether those are trial balloons or hints of things to come.

Then there's the role of Li Keqiang, the premier once lauded for his aggressive "Likonomics" economic reform plan, but recently sidelined by the less change-oriented Mr. Xi. It will fall to Mr. Li to deliver a work report to kick off the National People's Congress Wednesday, and that "will give some idea as to which direction they will be moving," said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Centre for Chinese Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. It will show "whether Li Keqiang can still push his market reforms, or whether he will have to bow to the more conservative inclinations of Xi Jinping."

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Still, the very theatre itself may be the most important element of the next two weeks – not as a means of delivering propaganda to the Chinese populace, but as a means of communicating with the party itself, and its 85 million members. In that sense, even a nametag on a bottle of water can send a significant message.

"This is a signal from the top of the leadership to make sure that cadres understand that the seriousness is going to continue," Mr. Moses said.

Follow me on Twitter @nvanderklippe

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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