China Prepares for Spotlight

The eyes of the world are looking towards Beijing for the Olympic Games that will be held here fewer than 11 months from now. But for real China watchers, an event next month will draw much greater attention and have a much greater impact on the country than 16 days of athletics.

In mid-October, China's ruling Communist Party will meet for its regular five-year congress. Unlike the annual National People's Congress, the Communist Party Congress sets the nation's agenda for the next five years, and usually results in a shuffling of ministers and even military leaders. China's economy, despite major market reforms over the past 25-odd years, is still centrally planned, and operates on five-year plans with specific targets and goals that are approved during the meeting.

Unlike the Olympics, for which most observers expect generally unfettered Internet access and the nation going out of its way to show that it's kinder and gentler, the party congress is a time of tension, especially in Beijing. Wikipedia's recent re-blocking in China is certainly no coincidence, and as the meeting approaches, more blockings and a network slowdown should be expected.

A slew of new, anti-"vulgarity" policies have just come down from the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), designed to keep sex and violence off the airwaves. Offline, visitors to Beijing can expect an increased police presence, possibly including roadblocks and inspections at night.

China's government representatives work full-time and for the most part are specialists, not generalists. Policy pronouncements come from the respective ministries and state administrations charged with regulating those particular areas. For example, the Ministry of Information Industry (MII) handles technology in general, meaning IT and telecommunications. Those regulatory announcements come out at other points, and therefore more specific news, like the issuance of 3G (third-generation) licenses, won't be issued during the congress.

What role technology will play in China's next five years will be clearer one month from now. Although the party congress is very much a broad-strokes event, the prominent mention of various aspects of the economy sets the tone for the coming five years. During former President Jiang Zemin's reign, science and technology were at the forefront of the nation's direction.

However, current leader Hu Jintao, has attempted to reduce the corruption so prevalent during Jiang's time, and has tried to make rural reform and closing the gap between rich and poor a priority. As such, agricultural technology, rather than IT, may receive more public attention during the congress.