Historic stakes are higher in China than in U.S.

November 8, 2012

Now that all the high-cost, mud-slinging drama of the U.S. presidential campaign is over, the world can focus on another political transition of potentially greater consequence: China’s 18th Communist Party Congress, which began today.

Don’t be misled by the choreographed orderliness of the moment when China’s new leaders parade on stage in order of seniority; the selection process this time has been marred by the murder of a British businessman and the purge of the provincial party boss Bo Xilai, punctuated by a blind political dissident seeking refuge in the U.S. embassy, and soiled by corruption charges and a New York Times report on the estimated $2.7 billion wealth of Premier Wen Jiabao’s family.

Beyond the unusually public Chinese drama, the ripples from China’s congress, known as Shí Bā Dà — or “the 18th Big” — could be of much greater historical significance even than the re-election of America’s first African-American President. This is because this new generation of Chinese leadership, following the almost certain transition from President Hu Jintao to Vice President Xi Jinping, will be unable to avoid fundamental and structural decisions about the direction of China’s economy, foreign policy and political structure.

It would seem coincidence that two most important global powers of their day — the United States and China — are choosing their leaders only days apart, leaders who will define the world’s most decisive bilateral relationship for the next generation. In truth, the Chinese have controlled the calendar and opted to go second, after toying for some time with the possibility of an early congress. They only announced the date of the congress at end-September.

Given the high stakes and the uncharacteristically public messiness of the run-up to the Chinese congress, it is possible that party bosses reckoned they needed the extra time to ensure order. Perhaps they also concluded that by waiting for all the American balloons to drop, they could draw greater global attention to their transition, and perhaps instill greater discipline among party ranks who had just witnessed America’s 57th peaceful presidential election in 223 years.

At first blush, China’s problems seem of a sort that President Barack Obama would welcome. Following a quadrupling of China’s economy, in dollar terms, over the past decade, a dramatic expansion of social services so that 95 percent of Chinese have government-subsidized health insurance (up from 15 percent), and a growth of global economic and political influence with few, if any, historic equals, China’s challenges all appear to be about managing success.

Look more closely, however, and President Xi and his fellow leaders confront growing public discontent, rising calls for political and economic reform, and increased tensions with their neighbors and the United States.

The ripples from the Bo Xilai scandal are far from over as he awaits his own trial following his wife’s conviction for murdering her British business associate Neil Heywood.  Communist leaders worry about the spread of resentment and what Chinese authorities refer to as “mass protests” — more than 180,000 in 2011 — among a citizenry fed up with cronyism, abuse of power and environmental degradation and without any effective means to remove or punish offenders. Lu Ting, a Bank of America economist who attended a Chinese economic-planning summit in September, described the popular belief that that China is “unstable at the grass roots, dejected at the middle strata and out of control at the top.”

With a slowing economy and rising social problems, most experts believe President Xi will have few options but to decide whether to opt for an authoritarian clampdown or a loosening of party controls in order to begin political and economic reform. No time would be better to lessen control than now when the party’s legitimacy remains relatively strong. The options available to Xi are discussed increasingly openly by Chinese scholars. They range from creating a freer press that could be an ally against corruption, to broadening existing experiments toward directly electing government officials. Bold reforms could shore up eroding support for the party, while inaction or a crackdown could intensify dissent.

As Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told East German leader Erich Honecker, before his country imploded and disappeared from the map, “Life punishes those who come too late.”

What worries U.S. officials most is that Chinese leaders, facing a slowing economy and social pressures, may turn to nationalism as a means of maintaining a legitimacy that thus far has been ensured by economic success. With tensions rising recently with Japan, facing new territorial disputes with its neighbors in the South China Sea, with matters concerning Taiwan far from settled, and with new trade disputes bubbling up regularly with the United States and Europe, President Xi and President Obama must deepen efforts to ensure a more cooperative relationship.

Perhaps the calendar closeness in the two leaders’ election will be useful in focusing their minds. After all, no relationship among world leaders will have greater significance. However, President Xi’s task may be the more challenging one.

As Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution put it during a Hong Kong debate organized by Intelligence Squared – arguing against the motion “China Picks Better Leaders than the West” – “You look at any mature democracy, and no one worries about the stability of the system… They worry about individual leaders, they worry about particular policies, but the system is stable… In China, they worry about the stability of the system every single day.”

PHOTO: A man walks with his bicycle in front of a screen showing propaganda displays near the Great Hall of the People at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, November 7, 2012. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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