When China's President Hu Jintao opened the Communist Party's pivotal 17th National Congress on Oct. 15, the 2,000-plus delegates probably didn't expect the 64-year-old to flog the word democracy. But he did, using the term more than 60 times in 2 1⁄2 hours, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. But before anyone could break out the voting booths, Xinhua carried another story that clarified what Hu really meant: China would continue to develop democracy "with Chinese characteristics" under the "leadership of the Communist Party."
Such promises will ring particularly hollow to the scores of Chinese who have found themselves questioned, detained or just plain kidnapped in the months ahead of the weeklong Congress. The run-up to the party's biggest get-together is always a tense time, with security officials desperate to prevent any disruptions. But this meeting, at which the government sets policy goals and anoints a new generation of leaders, set China in a "deep freeze," says Nicholas Bequelin of New York-based Human Rights Watch. In the past, the freeze has always been followed by a thaw that saw detained activists released and a lightening of the heavy hand of control over the media and Internet. This time, though, Bequelin says, it could be different: "By trying to push so hard now, the government is closing the lid on a pressure cooker. People won't allow those hard-won gains in rights against the arbitrary power of the state to be rolled back." With more than 3,000 years of literary tradition behind them, it's no surprise that the Chinese people might finally want to start defining the meaning of a few critical words like democracy themselves.