China's Great Hall of the People - minus the people
- 14 November 2012
- From the section Asia
Getting in was easy. My press pass was barcoded so that as I walked though the backdoor of the Great Hall of the People an LCD screen flashed up for all to see a personal welcome screen with my photo.
Then the queuing started. While the Communist Party's 18th Congress elected its Central Committee, we, the journos, queued, and queued and finally sat on the carpet and slumped against the marble walls and queued some more.
It was great to be among the Chinese media: the PLA newspaper reporters in their military uniforms, the niche party papers like the Global Times, whose reporters I hooked up with.
Eventually, amid the inevitable Chinese rugby scrum, the barcodes and order gave way to a flurry of pushing and shoving and we were in - to another queue.
Only this queue was in a corridor overlooking the car park for the Party's highest dignitaries.
A vast array of black Audi Sedans, which we immediately dubbed the Great Audis of The People.
When I say we, I mean me and a few other Western journalists - though all the Chinese reporters sneakily had their photos taken against the scene: unusable but to be pinged around among their mates on semi-private social networks.
Then we were finally in. And here is the weird thing: the Congress takes up the ground floor and the entire stage.
The first balcony is the media and an outsize brass band. The second balcony - designed for 2,500 spectators - is empty.
The fact is, the Great Hall of the People does not see many of the actual people these days.
And that is a shame.
Because whatever you think of Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and the new leader Xi Jinping - and views range from murdering dictators to the last best hope of capitalism on Earth - it is a buzz to see them live.
Even if Jiang sits there like a grumpy old guy who nothing can impress. Even if Hu's speeches are stilted. Even if Xi spends the whole session shifting impatiently in his chair like a guy in a hurry at the barbers.
These are the men who influence the daily lives of one sixth of humanity and whose struggles with cruel fate, mass unrest, and a crumbling international order will influence the lives of all of us.
There is, when the votes are taken, or when the leaders are interacting with the delegates in the hall, an informality it is hard to capture with a camera.
There is this ritual they go through when the votes are taken:
"Any against? Any in abstention?"
And each section of the hall has to pipe up "meyo" - "none".
So you just hear "meyo, meyo, meyo" in different voices until the chairman declares - and not in a cynical way but in a very joyful voice - "Passed! Well done!"
After several rounds of "meyo" I have to confess a slight ripple of suppressed laughter went around - and not from the hacks in the gallery.
There was, I swear it, a slight titter across the floor - whether coming from the gaudily dressed ethnic minority people, or from the army, or from the youth league nobody knows. Hu Jin Tao even looked up and smiled, getting the joke.
Put any bunch of humans into a human situation and they act like humans, not stone monoliths, even when they are surrounded by monoliths.
What the congress decided today was to write Hu Jin Tao's theory of scientific development in to the party constitution, so that the official ideology of Chinese Communism is now - take a massive breath: Marxism-Leninism-Deng-Xiao-Ping-Thought, Important Theory of the Three Represents and the Theory of Scientific Development.
Put another way, they have added to Jiang's theory that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) should represent the bourgeoisie, Hu's idea that they should do it nicely.
And to Jiang's legacy that economic development should take place at the cost of destroying nature, they have added Hu's attempts to stop it doing so.
And to Mao - who asked Chinese people to "criticize Confucius", they have added the post-Jiang doctrine that China is really a 2,000 Confucian civilization, and that the 20th Century, with its strikes, wars, famines, experimental films, feminism, surrealism, etc - was just an aberration.
But it is still a puzzle why the masses are not let into the hall.
On the way there I saw numerous crowds of black-clad men on street corners, who the Chinese call, affectionately, "hooligans" - put there by the state to beat up anybody who looks like they might make trouble.
On every corner there are elderly women in uniforms patrolling their neighbourhood voluntarily.
With that, and biometric ID cards and an internet police that is the envy of the world, you could surely find 2,500 members of the public who would come and go ecstatic as the old troopers on the platform stumble through The Internationale.
Certainly nobody in the press made trouble: not even me, nor Channel Four News, nor The Guardian. We sat, watched, recorded.
But the Great Hall of the People minus the people is, for now, essential to the theatre of Chinese rule.
Disgraced leader Bo Xilai made the mistake of projecting a distinctive political platform - a kind of corrupt leftism - and rousing the masses with "Red Songs" and Maoist rhetoric to support him - and crush his enemies - in the name of an anti-corruption drive.
The all-seeing party tolerated this for years but is now, like Claude Rains in Casablanca, "shocked, shocked" to find corruption going on, and stands ready to round up the usual suspects.
What it does not want is an energized population - even in its own support.
Outgoing leader Hu has achieved a lot.
You have to acknowledge that, even at the price of the foregoing sentence being lifted, verbatim, on its own in one of the montages of "foreign media praise" for China that are being run by the People's Daily.
He has unleashed fiscal stimulus, saved his own and the world economy from slump, instituted the beginnings of a social welfare system, normalized strikes so that they become a jailing and riot police affair rather than a shooting and life sentence affair.
In the name of suppressing chaos Hu has tolerated a kind of controlled chaos: the seizure of land - and its seizure back - in low-level peasant warfare. Immolations in Tibet, regular walkouts at Foxconn.
But now it is decision time. Tonight they will decide the composition of the incoming Politbureau Standing Committee - and its size.
We, the journos, will read the entrails of who is who on that committee and make a stab at whether the market plus dictatorship faction, or the social market plus soft-power faction, has the upper hand.
And then, paradoxically, we will guess how far the "market plus dictatorship" faction is prepared to be pragmatic, bending with the wind like a reed etc.
But nobody knows. The suppression of facts, history, historical memory, books, rational argument, unorthodox driving styles, and randomly unthreatening pages on the internet means nobody can really know anything.
You just have to judge China by its actions. Today was an exercise in controlled power: the controlled handover, the obsessive control of the press ("DSLR cameras this way, digital video cameras that way").
But the abiding symbol I will take away from my first ever time in this historic place is the empty second balcony.
Two and a half thousand seats they would rather leave empty than fill with cheering, loyal and hopeful people.
Empty leather and polished wood. A silence into which the votes, the Internationale and the camera shutter clicks could float and disappear.