China's once-in-a-decade leadership reshuffle is a highly orchestrated event aimed at touting the successes of the outgoing leaders and hinting at the plans of the future ones.
But unlike previous leadership transitions, this year’s is being discussed as it happens by tens of millions of people online. Almost 40 percent of the Chinese population is now on the Internet, and public opinion has become more of a factor in China's decision making process.
A survey run by the state-run Xinhua news agency reports that so-called netizens' biggest expectation is to share the fruits of development. There is also intense interest in plans affecting people's livelihoods such as education, housing, food safety, and employment.
Online, some users who avoided the attention of state censors were skeptical about whether the party is measuring the right economic indicators of progress.
“We are always intoxicated by our cities' row upon row of high buildings, thinking that is the mark of a country's power and prominence,” a user from Guangdong province wrote on her Weibo account, “But if the livelihood problems of the common people are not resolved, superiority in any other respect is just of no use.”
Online and in state media, much of the commentary has focused on departing President Hu Jintao's speech and his warnings about China's future.
One of Hu Jintao's most discussed remarks, judging by Chinese newspapers' front pages, was his pledge to double Chinese people's per capita income by 2020, to which many online responded with some caution.
A user from Chongqing calls Hu's pledge a “game of numbers.” “Income will double, but commodity prices will triple, and the property prices will grow fivefold,” he wrote on his microblog account. “What is the use of income growth then?” he added.
To better illustrate this sentiment, a user called “A dictatorship superiority,” posted a picture comparing Chinese farmers' income in the span of 10 years. Drawn next to the 2000 figures, when farmer's yearly income was only six thousand yuan, were the four cows that a farmer could afford then. In 2010, after their yearly income had doubled to 12 thousand yuan, farmers could only afford one cow a year.
Chinese authorities have in recent years resorted to a tight management system for online communication, that includes keywords censorship on online searches, doctoring of content and deletion of anti-party online speech.
Li Chengpeng, an influential Chinese writer with over six million followers on Weibo, repeatedly posted a positive message about the meeting that read “Gladly welcome the 18th party congress!”
“It is unlikely that they will delete this post,” he wrote, as a way of acknowledging online censorship while making fun of it at the same time.
An op-ed in the Global Times, a state owned newspaper that often provides insights into the Chinese leadership's own viewpoints, acknowledged that China's public had many questions and different opinions about the country's future path, but stated that the 18th party congress had given an authoritative answer to the issue of how China should move forward.
“We think that many voices, including the more extreme ones have the right to continue to exist in China,” the op-ed read. “But China needs to have a consensus regarding its path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, it is not just an official jargon, it is not only a slogan, it is the long term political route that the Chinese people have arrived to at tremendous costs. It has brought huge prosperity and all kinds of hope, so we must treasure it and protect it,” the editorial read.
The editorial referred to a quote in Hu Jintao's report in which China's president warned against changing China's current model in favor of old or foreign ones. In his last major speech as China's president, Hu praised the outcome of the last 30 years of opening up and reform, and warned against “the old and rigid closed-door policy and any attempt to abandon socialism and take an erroneous path."
China's Communist party historian, Li Zhongjie interviewed on Xinhua, further explained Hu's remark.
“Only 30 years ago, who would have thought that so many Chinese people would be able to own their own car? That is why the implementation of the reform and opening up, and the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics has brought about an historical change,” Li said, “To forge this path was not easy, so it cannot be easily abandoned nor easily changed.”
Hu Jintao will pass his post as party secretary and China's president to Xi Jinping, whose policies for China's future are still unclear.
Compared to when Hu Jintao took power, analysts say Xi is likely to inherit the leadership of a nation that is far more equipped to voice its concern and a party whose legitimacy, traditionally based on the steady delivery of economic results, is less certain.