As Americans go to the polls today to elect a new president, the rulers of the rising superpower in the east are preparing for a once-in-a-decade change of leadership.
The contrast between the United States and China could hardly be starker and tells us something about the much-heralded contest between the two countries for the leading global role.
Whatever one thinks of the electoral process across the Atlantic, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have debated policies openly and at length, and have met crowds of voters across the country. The outcome remains in doubt even as polling begins. In contrast, the leadership transition in the last major country ruled by a Communist Party has been secretive and opaque, but the identity of the man who will lead the nation is a foregone conclusion.
For all its economic and social progress, China’s political system remains in the top-down autocracy dating back more than 2,000 years. Admirers of this way of governing argue that the country’s history and civilisation render it unfit for competitive democracy. Since this has never been tried on the Chinese mainland (in contrast to the vibrant system in Taiwan), this self-justifying argument lacks objective proof. But what the absence of open democracy means is demonstrated by China’s transition to the Fifth Generation of Communist leaders at a Party Congress opening on Thursday.
The Congress, held every five years, will see a major shake-up of China’s supreme political group, the Politburo Standing Committee, as the men (they are all male) who have run the People’s Republic for the past 10 years, during which it became the world’s second-biggest economy, step down because of age or term limits.
Taxi drivers in Beijing have been told to lock their back windows in case passengers hand out subversive leaflets, and to keep a special watch for ping-pong balls and balloons on which incorrect messages might be written. The persecution of human rights lawyers and petitioners seeking justice continues apace; the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo remains in jail on an 11-year sentence for organising a petition advocating democracy. By any assessment except from those who prize authoritarian stability above freedom, China faces major political questions as its social development, accelerated by the spread of mobile phones and social media, boosts individual freedoms within the Party pressure cooker.
At the last Congress, in 2007, Central Committee voting elevated a chubby-faced, highly experienced Party bureaucrat, Xi Jinping, to the Standing Committee as the senior member of the Fifth Generation. That makes him virtually certain to succeed the present leader, Hu Jintao, as Party Secretary, the top job, at the coming meeting. He will then take over from Hu as State President before adding the third big post, Chair of the Commission overseeing the armed forces.
Xi, 59, is the leading “princeling” – the children of first-generation Communist chiefs. His father, a Vice Premier under Mao Zedong, was purged in the Cultural Revolution while his son was “sent down” to the countryside, living in a cave and looking after pigs. His early attempts to join the Party were rejected. He has written of his bitterness and the lessons he learned.
As his father was rehabilitated after Deng Xiaoping won the power struggle that followed Mao’s death, the son worked his way up through Party and state provincial posts before being elevated to the Standing Committee. When one asks sources how he got to the top, the answer is that the power and interest groups which dominate the country feel comfortable with him.
He is a more open personality than Hu. He smiles quite a lot. He exercises by swimming. His wife was famous as a star singer with the army entertainment corps, but has given up performing. Their daughter is studying at Harvard. He has travelled quite widely abroad.
Xi speaks of the need to impose “Marxist morality” and inveighs against corruption. His career in rich, coastal provinces suggests he will continue the growth mantra launched by Deng Xiaoping at the end of the 1970s. The spectacular fall of the populist politician Bo Xilai when he got too big for his boots makes Party unity the main priority, which fits with Xi’s style.
But there are problems. Marxist morality has little appeal in a country where materialism is a major driving force. Though Xi has warned the families of officials not to profit from their connections, an investigative report by Bloomberg showed how his relatives have built up fortunes from business. (The news service has been blocked ever since.)
For all his affability on foreign trips, Xi went off-message when in Mexico by inveighing against foreigners sticking their noses into China’s affairs, presumably meaning critics of human rights and Tibet. As for the crucial element in today’s China – the economy – the model launched by Deng of cheap labour, cheap capital and welcoming export markets no longer works so well. China is slowing down and needs rebalancing and modernisation.
This means going up against powerful vested interests. Is this the job for the comfortable Xi? Or will he compromise, risking a logjam of growth and growing social and political tension?
The closed nature of the political system means nobody knows the answer. Probably not even the new leader himself. Despite the façade of unity, factions vie for power. A crucial question is whether the main proponent of reform, Wang Yang, the Party Secretary of the richest province of Guangdong – who is the only senior official to have been an industrial worker – is elevated to the Standing Committee or if conservatives are promoted instead.
By choosing a man of compromise in Xi, the Party is opting for a steady-as-it-goes course. The danger is that China operates at the level of the lowest common denominator instead of grappling with the tough decisions that are needed.
The Xi riddle remains wrapped in the Chinese enigma. One thing is certain. Like his predecessors, he will do all he can to preserve the regime. How he does this is as important as who wins the White House.
Jonathan Fenby’s new book on China is ‘Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today’. He blogs on China at http://www.trustedsources.co.uk/blog/china