Now that the ‘A’ list of world political leaders who gathered first in Beijing for the APEC forum and then in Australia for a meeting of the G20 have dispersed back to their homelands, it is irresistible to look back and wonder what it all meant.
I won’t attempt to sort out all of the political implications. There are many professional political analysts far more qualified to undertake that task and, in my own experience, I’ve noted that no one is really qualified to predict the political implications of anything anyway. There are just too many variables involved.
But I will, however, share a few observations from the ground here in Beijing.
The biggest news of all – the skies were blue. And they were blue for several days on end, which actually gave rise to common use of the newly minted phrase ‘APEC blue’. The government, of course, went to great lengths to insure this outcome. From the first of November half of the cars in Beijing and many surrounding cities were taken off the road through regulations that limited driving to even and odd days aligned with the last digit of your license plate. Government offices were shuttered and their occupants sent home. Many actually left the city for holiday.
And numerous factories were closed or asked to reduce production levels for the two-week period. My own factory was one of them. We were allowed to operate at reduced levels, and I must say that the government officials responsible for administering this initiative were genuinely interested in finding mutually acceptable solutions. They have no need to be, to be honest. But they were, and I think that says a lot about the tone that President Xi Jinping has brought to the government at all levels.
Security checkpoints on the roads in and out of Beijing, which I use every day to commute to work, were manned, but there weren’t any weapons in sight and they did not stop every car to check the paperwork of the passengers. They were clearly there as a precaution, which was thankfully never necessary.
This is a stark departure from past practice and every citizen of Beijing took notice. Under past administrations any major meeting in Beijing – foreign leaders or not – resulted in heavily fortified checkpoints where virtually every car was inspected and the occupants’ paperwork reviewed. Long delays were commonplace and apparently of little concern to the government officials who ordered them.
The convenience of the citizenry, however, has been high on the agenda of the Xi administration and it is obviously sincere. And I, like every one of the 22 million residents of Beijing, am genuinely grateful. Life is hard enough.
As has now become the norm, the First Lady, Peng Liyuan, Mr. Xi’s wife, was very visible and endearingly gracious. A famous folksinger in her own right, she is adored by the Chinese public and I believe her high visibility is a testament to both the self-confidence of Xi Jinping and his general worldview that good governance is a team affair. It has to be inclusive. If the 7 men of the Party’s Central Politburo govern in isolation they will ultimately find themselves in isolation.
To be clear, this is not a ‘two-for-one’, as President Bill Clinton once infamously declared. But it is a partnership nonetheless. Everyone has a role and I believe this alone gives the Chinese great hope for the future. It is a clear inflection point in the way the Communist Party of China governs.
As is typical of Chinese political-speak, many of President Xi’s own remarks were very general in nature and tone and offered little in the way of the gritty details that Western media so ardently seeks. But he delivered a message nonetheless and I believe it was a message of hope for both the Chinese people and the world in which the Chinese presence can simply not be ignored.
Here’s what I heard: ‘We acknowledge that with prosperity and power comes responsibility. We are prepared to meet those responsibilities. We will, nonetheless fulfill those responsibilities in our own Chinese way.
Most importantly, President Xi spent little time talking about what he expects of others. Almost all of his remarks were consistently introspective and devoted to what China would do to fulfill its obligation as a world power. The Western powers, in contrast, appeared to spend much of their time at the podium talking about what they want others to do (e.g. Russia, China, Iraq, etc., etc.).
All told, as I’ve noted before, this is a man who strikes me as being very comfortable in his own skin. While no Chinese President will ever crack jokes in the way that Bill Clinton or even Ronald Reagan did, Xi Jinping did show a sense of humor in acknowledging the irony of the APEC blue skies that so dominated social media.
All told, it was a good couple of weeks for the Chinese, particularly the ordinary citizens of Beijing. And, frankly, you can feel it in the air. There’s just a little more bounce in everyone’s step.
In fact, not long after APEC ended and the government returned to work, I had to file for a formal tax receipt for which I normally have to produce my passport and visa. But instead of sending me to the back of the bureaucratic line, which has been the norm in a country in which bureaucracy is sacrosanct, when I told the government official that I could only produce a copy of my passport because my actual passport was with the Entry and Exit Bureau for my visa renewal, he said, “No problem,” and gave me the chopped receipt anyway.
I can guarantee that this is the first and only time that I, as a foreigner, have experienced anything close to this kind of flexibility in matters bureaucratic. (Unfortunately, the Beijing Entry and Exit Bureau says that they have yet to receive authorization for the new 10-year visas that have made the news of late. I was only allowed, therefore, to apply for a one-year visa, as has been the norm.)
Oh well, you can’t have it all. All told it has been a good month for the Chinese and I, as an adopted resident and kindred spirit, am happy for all of them. I’m enjoying the clean air and admiring an administration that is self-confident but nonetheless a little less dogmatic than its predecessors
Good things, I believe, will come of it.
Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China
Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.