That 10-yearly orgasm: ‘Theory, not practice’

Chinese Congress 2012

“All together, now, all together, now (The Beatles).

I have admit to being amused, yet again, by western media reports of what is apparently going on in China in preparation for their 10-year orgasm – this time around, the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th. National Congress.

Some 2,300 delegates will meet in Beijing for the next official transition of leadership power in China. The congress will continue for x days – I can’t find out how many, but never mind, it’s all planned, of course.

A UK press item describes the situation:

“Beijing is in security lockdown – kitchen knives have reportedly been removed from shop shelves, racing pigeons are confined to their lofts, and the window controls removed from passenger seats in taxis across the city to stop people furtively passing out dissenting messages from the back seat.”[1]

The article continues:

“Few surprises are expected at the very top. Xi Jinping is due to replace Hu Jintao as General Secretary of the party that has ruled China since 1949. Li Keqiang is set to succeed Wen Jiabao as Premier.”[1]

Local quotes

“There is too much unfairness here and the government controls everything. I have to say we need more human rights. I don’t feel disappointed with the current leadership, but there’s nothing to be very cheerful about either.”

“The main problem is unfairness, and that people’s basic rights cannot be assured, such as land rights, property rights, food security and environmental safety. I don’t know if I am disappointed, and I’m not sure what the result will be if some wise leaders are replaced … The government should strictly implement the laws.”

“The thing most needed in this country is supervision of the Communist Party and an independent legal system, but this seems unlikely in a country with one-party rule, so the rules and regulations lack justice and are in the service of the rulers.”

“The most disappointing thing is corruption. From the government to the ordinary people, everyone here is attached to a code which represents a theory that nothing is real except money.”

“It is not possible to have change or political reform because the leadership is all about extending the leadership. I cannot see hope unless there is more freedom and supervision of the leadership.”

Please note the above are selective quotes from  the article in The Independent, as already cited.[1]

Why am I amused?

For purely personal reasons.

Two anecdotes, from my own time as a trainer with The Thomson Foundation (a UK NGO) over the years, which gave me an unexpected but authentic view of the mind-sets of Chinese media players.

1: Production course, Beijing, 1995

The international media training NGO I worked for finally succeeded in organising a course for central and regional TV producers, to be held in Beijing. It proved to be a fortnight of hilarity, serious work and deep frustration.

First, the “trainees” went on strike, because they didn’t want to be challenged and asked about what they actually did, followed up by practical exercises as to how they did it; instead, they insisted on “lectures”, so as write down and “understand what to do”, not to be “shown how to do it”. As the rebel leader told us “We want to learn theory, not practice!”

A 36-hour stand-off was eventually resolved (we even threatened to return to UK), and we continued with practical shooting and editing exercises.

Then: permission and authority, and the inability to do the stories “we want”

Without wishing to denigrate the media personnel in attendance, it’s fair to say they were scared shitless of “authority”. They had some lovely ideas: “let’s do an item on Beijing Zoo”, “what about a street market, interviewing the sellers and buyers”, “what does Tiananmen Square really mean to us” (some 2 years after the events there). All ideas they, the participants, proposed, only to come back to us trainers saying “Not possible! ‘They’ won’t give us any permission”.

Well, we managed to get all those three things (and more) done, and the “trainees” were astonished by their own (aided) success.

My personal part was to take on the challenge of filming in Tiananmen Square. I simply took a video camera, commandeered one of our drivers, and told him to drive slowly around the square several times, while I shot out of the rear window, and on the pavement itself. He was terrified!

Ironically, and totally unexpectedly, as well as general shots of the square and the “mausoleum”, I returned with a sequence of shots of a formal 21-gun-salute being given in honour of the visit of the Lithuanian President. The “trainees” were amazed, and aghast. The driver was still shaking. They asked how I “got permission”. I told them it was a public space, so I never thought of asking, as a tourist with a video camera.  Why didn’t they approach it in the same, bold (admittedly more discretionary) manner, in insisting on their (?) rights? But, yes, I could well have been arrested by an earnest, pimple-faced, ideological adolescent twat, in a (compulsory) green uniform.

Similarly, we eventually gained access to the zoo, and to the street market (the best story of all, as it happened).

I hope we “big-nosed, red-faced” Brit trainers, as they amusingly saw us,  managed to instil some more courage into those young, aspiring journalists. Who knows, given the system within which they still have to operate?


I did feel ashamed, when telling one of the colleagues on the course, that I had to fly for over 10 hours to get home to UK. He replied that he had a 96-hour journey by rail ahead of him to get home to his province – I suppose he missed that wonderful Congress.

2: Management and planning course, Guangzhou

On my own, this time, I had a 3-week training course to deliver to top managers of CCTV and some other (carefully selected) TV stations. Needless to say, the “others” were the keenest, the most challenging participants.

This was about 10 years ago – you get the drift, now?

I’d realised, while preparing for the course, that the previous (2002) Congress would overlap the final 2 days of the course, and prepared some material that I hoped might be relevant.

Well, what a waste of time! With 3 days to go on the course, my interpreter informed me, quite seriously: Mr. Trainer, you may not be aware, but the most important event in China is about to begin tomorrow”.

So, to cut it short, the course was prematurely terminated: “Maybe you can tell us everything for the next 3 days, today,” was the suggestion I was given.

My Welsh answer (non -PR) was succinct: “Piss off! We were supposed to be discussing planning… your bosses had 10  years to plan this course in relation to the Congress.”

The course collapsed, and I spent a delightful couple of days in sight-seeing. I just felt sorry for those media participants who’d also been well aware of a small timing problem, but were too scared, or polite, or powerless, to mention it to their superiors.

Post-script: Albanian Christmas

This all reminds me of another wonderful occasion. Working in Tiranë, capital of Albania, one December, I was again caught out by a totally distraught TV producer who told me she’d been informed, with only 6 days to go, that she had to produce a “Christmas Special” for 25th. December. An event almost 2,000 years in the planning… but the management had just realised the date!


Planning? Followed by non-thinking acceptance. And top management never changes, even in its attitudes and ineptitude.

Speaking of which, we’re still waiting for the result of the US presidential election, aren’t we? Look again at the Chinese quotations above: one-party, two-party, not much choice, the rich, eh?)

[1}: The Independent



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