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.