The 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party had begun, and President Hu Jintao was droning his way through his last big speech before stepping down for good. Irritatingly, he raised his voice to a low shout every time he reached the end of a significant sentence. That was when the assembled delegates were expected to applaud, and of course they did. They’d all been issued with copies of his speech telling them precisely where to start clapping.
I’d had as much of this as I could take, so I walked out of the grand theatre in the Great Hall of the People into the equally grand lobby outside. It was about the size of a Buckingham Palace reception room. I sat down on the marble staircase and starting writing my report.
And it was then, with a uniformed security guard watching me tolerantly, that I started to get a flashback. Somewhere, some time, I’d done this before. Then I remembered. It was Moscow: the Kremlin conference hall on 28 June 1988, the opening of the 19th Conference of the Soviet Communist Party. The assembled delegates were there to work out what on earth to do. Three years later, of course, history decided for them, and tipped the whole lot into its capacious dustbin.
Western journalists were invited into the 1988 Congress in Moscow with remarkable friendliness, and everything was relaxed and informal. I sat on the third step from the bottom of a grand marble staircase, probably built to the same Marxist-Leninist blueprint as Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. And I wrote a story about the way the Soviet Communist Party seemed to be talking itself out of a job.
Just because I sat on another marble staircase 24 years later, it doesn’t mean the Chinese Communist Party is about to collapse; though a very well-placed, influential academic here told me the other day that a couple of senior Party figures had wondered aloud in his presence whether Chinese communism would actually make it to the centenary of its founding. That’ll be in 2021.
The fact is, no one has the foggiest idea what’s going to happen next, under the brand-new leadership of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. Another well-placed friend of mine thinks China could descend into bellicose ultra-nationalism — something, he points out, for which the outgoing leadership of President Hu and Premier Wen has made careful preparation, just in case China’s economy goes south and foreigners have to be blamed for it. A third friend, not so well-placed but perhaps more balanced, thinks China will just continue getting richer and more powerful. Maybe; but the crossroads China has now reached has a variety of routes leading from it, and many of them are distinctly unattractive.
There’s another link with Russia in 1988. Glasnost, China-style, has reached the point where anyone can say anything, as long as they don’t do it too publicly. Artists can take the mickey out of Mao just as Russian, Czech, Polish and Hungarian ones used to do out of Stalin. It’s been a second flashback to sit in Beijing cafés listening to intelligent young people telling me that the Communist Party has nothing to offer them, and they couldn’t care less what it decides.
Being with these charming, attractive, well-dressed people in their twenties and thirties has been like inhabiting a totally different universe from the 18th Congress in the Great Hall of the People. There in the audience sit the delegates, uncomfortable in their dark suits, red ties discreetly loosened, collar-buttons undone, identical black briefcases by their feet each containing a tupperware box of noodles. Up on the stage stand the new leaders, just as uncomfortable, each with raven-black dyed hair, each looking like something from that famously dreadful waxworks museum in Great Yarmouth. What on earth do they have to offer the bright young men and women of China?
Still, you get the feeling that the newly-minted President Xi Jinping understands all this. He seems to be a reasonable and quite pleasant human being. He has spent time visiting the outside world, and his daughter is said to be studying in the US. Oh yes, and something that attracts the notice even of the café sophisticates: his wife is the cross-over folk-singer Peng Liyuan, younger than him and very attractive in a pixie-ish, Jean Simmons sort of way. Her stuff is quite listenable-to, if sometimes a bit uncomfortably patriotic (‘I Belong To China’, ‘On The Chinese Land’, and perhaps prophetically ‘China’s Moon’).
But then Gorbachev and his delightful wife Raisa were human and charming and sympathetic too. It didn’t rescue Soviet communism.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 17 November 2012