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Leaders Take a Number in Land of Digital Dogma

March 14, 2004|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Walk into the Great Hall of the People in the Chinese capital last week and you couldn't miss the giant red banner welcoming you to the "Second Session of the 10th National People's Congress." Listen to the Chinese premier speak and you would hear about the importance of tackling the "Three Rural Questions" and ensuring the "Two Guarantees" for the urban poor.

Trek all the way out to Tibet and visit the construction site of the highest railroad on Earth and you would see a bridge painted with the slogan "Maintain the One Center and Two Musts Roadmap, Study the Three Represents, Emphasize the Three Feelings, Overcome the Three Big Challenges and Realize the Three Big Goals."

If this numerical mumbo jumbo sounds confusing, it wasn't meant to be.

The Chinese government has a tradition of chopping policy ideas into bite-sized numbers for public consumption. Some of the best known include former President Jiang Zemin's doctrine of the "Three Represents" and the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's mantra of "One Country, Two Systems."

Although most Chinese have stopped paying attention, digital slogans continue to dominate the headlines and mark the propaganda style of the world's largest Communist Party.

"In the States, you have the Bush doctrine. In China, we have the Three This and Four That," said Dali Yang, a China scholar at the University of Chicago. "Many Chinese people used to be illiterate. This is how the elite passed complex ideas down to the people, and it became a habit."

Once, people had to heed these code words or pay a heavy political price. Catchphrases popular under the rein of Chairman Mao Tse-tung include the "Stinking Number Nine," a denigrating label for intellectuals, and the "Five Red Categories," indicating a superior proletariat class background. Falling into the wrong category could mean death.

Today, Chinese couldn't care less. "We now live an apolitical life," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at the People's University in Beijing. "Everybody's out making money."

But at the National People's Congress, which closes today, the politicians lost no time cranking out new formulas.

The mayor of Beijing wants the nation's capital to follow the "Five Balances," the "Five Insists" and "Five Musts." The city's party secretary wants to emphasize the "Three Key Points" and "Three Major Breakthroughs." China's Olympic organizers declare "Two Stages and Three Goals."

"I have no idea what they are talking about," Zhou said.

If it's hard for an educated urbanite, imagine the frustration of provincial officials stuck with the task of selling the slogans to their constituents in the hinterland where education levels remain low.

"Ordinary folks, especially from the remote areas like ours, usually have a hard time understanding them," said Peng Zhaoqing, a legislative delegate who represents a tiny ethnic minority in the southwestern province of Yunnan. "Something like the Three Represents, if you repeat it enough, local cadres will eventually memorize it. But when it comes to ordinary people, forget it.

"I have to admit, sometimes even I can't remember what the numbers mean," Peng said.

The fact that people could ignore or even poke fun at party talk is a sign of progress unthinkable in China's more authoritarian past.

One of the jokes most frequently shared via Chinese cellphone text message asks how three world leaders would nail Osama bin Laden. The answer: President Bush would launch missiles to kill him. President Vladimir V. Putin would send Russian girls to seduce him. The Chinese president would use the Three Represents theory to annoy him to death.

But it's not all jokes for the number crunchers.

The Three Represents, despite its awkward sound, is a serious manifesto that sets a new direction for modern China. The idea, which is expected to be enshrined into the Chinese Constitution this weekend, in effect legitimizes the country's burgeoning capitalists by allowing them to join the Communist Party. It also sets the stage for the country to give constitutional protection to private property for the first time.

But even as China moves toward a free-market economy, semantics still ties the country down to "five-year plans" and the "four insists." Roughly, the latter means that Chinese should insist on: the leadership of the Communist Party, marching on the socialist road, Marxist Leninist ideology and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

"Well, we know things are really different today, but they still have to talk that way," said Zhou, the sociologist. "Each political era has its own slogans. It's never just a simple obsession with numbers."

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