The contrast in how the world’s two most powerful nations have and will choose their leaders this month has been a source of endless comment. The US ran a loud campaign and millions cast ballots to select a president. The Chinese Communist Party begins a choreographed 18th National Congress to choose a standing committee, the size of which remains a matter of whispered debate, let alone its final composition. The weeks before the congress saw one prominent Chinese leader go to jail, his wife tried for murder and the man set to become the country’s new leader, Xi Jinping, mysteriously disappear from public view for a week.
The economic trajectories of the world’s number one and number two powers is watched closely by the world. The US continues to hold its head above recessionary waters — but just. A decelerating China still remains the fast-growing economy. But the gap between the maturity of the political systems of the two countries is enormous. The official Chinese media has rightly called the past decade a “glorious” one for their country. Surveys now show that in Africa, Asia and Europe as many people see China as the world’s number one economy as they do the US. India, whose GDP is already one-fourth the size of China’s and rapidly falling further behind, is not even seen as a contender any more. China’s weakness is its political system. The secretive and labyrinthine way it chooses its next leader is out of sync with the strength of its economy. Little is known about Mr Xi beyond what has been put out by the official machinery. It also seems evident that since Deng Xiaoping each successive Chinese leader has been weaker than his predecessor. Beijing is quite open in admitting that as its economy slows down, the multiple problems whose origins lie in corruption, inequality and abuse of overwhelming State power have been growing rapidly.
Those who talk of a collapse of the Chinese system have doomed themselves to a forever wait. But those who look at the faction battles, ruthless purges and opacity that mark every succession, including this one, say the real concern about Beijing is the spillover effect of its internal politics. The world believes it has seen some of this in the country’s external belligerence and the unpredictability of its policies. Like most Chinese leaders, Mr Xi will focus solely on consolidating power over the next few years. If he is able to make the latter process a little more transparent and thus less threatening, he will have taken a first step in making China a great power because of something other than its economic statistics.