Changing China

Giant on the move

Grandpa Wen, so happy to see you!

October 7, 2009

North Korea knows how to put on a show for honoured guests. Visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was this week treated to a special performance of the “Arirang” mass games, the world’s biggest choreographed extravaganza with as many as 100,000 participants.

Part circus act, part rhythmic gymnastics, the display features dancing girls, goose-stepping soldiers and a massive flip-card section animated by ranks of performers, which this time included one-off Chinese messages added for Wen.

But in the time honoured tradition of opaque Communist regimes, the slogans were likely meant as more than just a simple part of celebrations, and certainly suggested that the isolated regime keeps a very close eye on political developments in the northern neighbour that is one of its few allies.

In almost flawless Chinese they spelt out a giant welcome message that acknowledged their visitor’s populist reputation in China: “Grandpa Wen, so happy to see you!” — which may have been as heartfelt as it was enormous, given there is hardly a steady stream of top international leaders beating a path to the door of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. 

This was matched with a string of more formal tributes to President Hu Jintao, whose official place in the pantheon of China’s top communist leaders (along with national icons Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping) was cemented at massive national day celebrations in Beijing on Oct 1.

“Build a harmonious socialist society,” might not sound like a rousing paean, but in fact it is one of Hu’s key slogans, part of a campaign to make the country’s growth more equal after decades of frenzied development. There was also a stodgy but politically impeccable homage to Hu’s role as general secretary of the Communist Party of China, and a nod to one of his other key rallying calls, for a “people-centred concept of scientific development.”

When he touched down in Pyongyang earlier this week, Wen became the first Chinese premier to visit North Korea since 1991, according to Beijing, and he arrived at a time when the secretive regime, shunned internationally for its nuclear weapons programme, is struggling economically in the face of a recent round of tighter sanctions.

China is vital as a key supplier of aid, a conduit for dialogue with less friendly nations, and in the past a defence against Western calls for tighter punishment of Pyongyang for its nuclear ambitions — though Beijing did sign up to tougher UN controls, after North Korea’s second nuclear test in May.

The North Korean government signalled during Wen’s visit that it could return to nuclear disarmament talks it had declared dead six months ago, but a report that it was near restoring its atomic plant underlined the secretive state would keep stakes high.

With so much in play, and China’s role key to the eventual outcome, the North Koreans must be hoping Wen’s team took plenty of snaps of their giant tribute to show off back in Beijing.

[Photographs of Wen Jiabao and Kim Jong-il and the Arirang mass games]


Van Jackson at has a hard look at exactly what North Korea’s objectives are in seeking negotiations and rapprochement with regional powers.

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