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US & China: A tale of two very different leadership changes

Within two days of each other, China and the US are heading for important stages of ushering in new leadership. The two processes couldn't have been more different. Sutirtho Patranobis reports.

world Updated: Oct 24, 2012 01:51 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

Within two days of each other, China and the US are heading for important stages of ushering in new leadership.

While Washington might see a new President after the November 6 election result is announced, Beijing will begin the process of replacing all its top Communist Party of China (CPC) leaders - 25 in the Politburo and nine in the Politburo's all-powerful Standing Committee including the President and Premier at the highest levels - on November 8.

The two processes couldn't have been more different.

For one, very few in China know how the top CPC leaders who will lead China for the next 10 years are being chosen. It's all but certain that Xi Jinping will be the next President and Li Keqiang will be the Premier; there's but zero clarity about how they were anointed in the first place. Very few know much about Xi or Li except a few staid paragraphs on government websites.

"Xi Jinping, ethnic Han, native of Fuping, Shaanxi Province, born in June 1953. Joined the CPC in January 1974 and began working in January 1969," his biography says and then goes on to list what positions he occupied through his career.

While the government-controlled Chinese media are publishing reams on the US election - a lot of it on the two candidates and how they are demonising China - there's nothing, absolutely nothing on China's own, new generation of leaders.

In the US, the two candidates have spent millions of dollars in campaign; much of it raised through fundraisers and donations. And much of it was spent on their campaigns in different kinds of media.

Television advertisements from the two camps attacked the other with unrestrained political vengeance. In China, there's no such thing; there is no campaign. When finally the new leadership is formally unveiled, it will be just one great photo opportunity inside the Great Hall of the People.

There is always talk about democracy in China in official Communist documents and then in the media; but it's always mentioned as "democracy with Chinese characteristics". What that democracy is or what that process is by which China'a leaders are "democratically" elected are never explained.

What are issued are grand statements that apparently spell out the party's thoughts to the people.

"The CPC attaches great importance to democracy. In his report on the party's 17th National Congress, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee and President of China Hu Jintao said the people's democracy is the lifeblood of socialism and developing the people's democracy is the CPC's consistent goal," said a recent such commentary on Xinhua.

The one debate that could be going on within the party but outsiders have little inkling about could be the fallout of the expulsion of the rising, charismatic leader, Bo Xilai,

In a report related to it - published in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post - analysts said the upcoming Congress could further move away from the thoughts and policies of Mao Zedong which Bo was apparently trying to return to.

"Bo's red campaign and his popularity for the endeavour might have triggered fear among some reform-minded leaders that Maoism might still be popular among those left in the cold in Deng Xiaoping's capitalistic economic reform," Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Renmin University, told the newspaper.

The intra-party divisions left behind by Bo possibly are among the defining characteristics of the Party Congress this time. But is there any chance of the CPC to have a debate on the issue? Or allow one of its upcoming top leaders to take questions on it? No.

Contrarily, the three US presidential debates were discussed in detail in the state media including the national broadcaster, CCTV. But there's been no discussion or analysis about what would be the new trends in Chinese politics, if at all, when the leadership assumes power early next year.

On Tuesday, for example, newspapers reported the latest meeting of the Politburo which proposed that the CPC constitution should be amended during the upcoming 18th Party Congress. The meeting was presided over by President Hu Jintao but in his capacity as the CPC general secretary. But there was no mention about what those specific amendments would be.

All important newspapers and websites carried the Xinhua report without explaining the importance of the meeting or the statement or how it could mould or impact the 18th Congress.

To say that Chinese governance even in the run-up to one of the most important changes in leadership is opaque is like saying that a US presidential election is partisan.