Two systems

IN THE closing hours of this year’s US presidential election, both the Democratic and Republican parties were reported to be mobilizing their battery of lawyers to quickly respond to issues that could affect the outcome of the vote. This is quite unusual. So stable has the United States’ political system been that legal challenges and electoral protests are seldom seen in its political exercises.

The controversial victory of George W. Bush over Al Gore in the 2000 election may have changed all that. Since then, Americans have become more sensitive to process manipulation and outright fraud—realities associated only with dysfunctional states in the underdeveloped world.

Halfway across the globe, a seemingly smoother leadership transition is taking place in China, the world’s most populous country.  The Chinese Communist Party, which has ruled China over the last six decades, is holding a weeklong national congress in which the new leadership of the party will be chosen.

Two thousand prechosen delegates will elect 200 Central Committee members, who in turn will choose 25 individuals who will constitute the powerful Politburo. The Politburo will then draw from its own ranks the nine top leaders who will form the all-powerful Standing Committee. This is the real seat of power in China. All these positions will have been previously negotiated in past caucuses of top party leaders, and so the 18th congress will largely be affirming decisions already made.

The whole exercise aims to project consensus, harmony, and stability in a society where everyone else is reduced to the role of spectator. The secrecy in which agreements are forged allows China’s leaders to hold their cards close to their chest particularly when they move in the international arena. In the era of Internet connectivity, however, that objective may have become less and less easy to achieve. Chinese bloggers actively track changes in the fortunes of leading party figures even before these become manifest in public.  They meticulously report the unfolding of ugly power struggles that are seldom, if ever, officially acknowledged. This new element makes the Chinese government more vulnerable than it has ever been to the challenge of transparency.

One of the casualties of the power struggle leading to the 18th congress is the flamboyant Bo Xilai who, before his expulsion from the party in April this year and subsequent detention, had been a member of the Politburo. His wife has been tried and convicted for the murder of a British businessman. Before this reversal of fortune, Bo, the son of one of the so-called eight elders of the Chinese Communist Party, had been touted to be a top contender for party leadership. There has been no official explanation for this “princeling’s” abrupt fall from power.

As meteoric as Bo’s descent from power has been the rise to prominence of the other “princeling,” Xi Jinping, whose election as the next secretary general of the party will be announced at the ongoing congress.  Xi is reputed to enjoy very close relations with the generals of the Chinese military, some of whom have been vocal in expressing their disaffection with current party leaders. As head of the party, he will assume the presidency of China in March next year. Also to be sworn in as deputy secretary general is Li Keqiang, a mild-mannered bureaucrat who will later assume the position of prime minister.

On the surface, this orderly transfer of government to a successor generation makes China a model for non-Western societies whose fractious politics has often prevented them from forging ahead economically. China’s astounding economic achievement in the past three decades under a capitalism presided over by its Communist Party does seem to make it worthy of emulation. This is so, particularly in the light of the 2008 American financial collapse, which, everyone agrees, has been precipitated by the retreat of the regulatory state.  The deep polarization of the US electorate mirrors the ambivalence of the American response to this humiliating economic disaster.

This polarization unsettles many Americans who feel that a national consensus is what is needed to get the economy on its feet. They feel that an election should produce that consensus rather than exacerbate divisions. I think that, barring a repeat of the controversy surrounding the 2000 presidential election, a stronger nation could emerge from this polarization so long as the institutions remain unquestioned.

On the other hand, China’s smooth transition might be deceptive in that it conceals a deeper problem that the ruling Communist Party must sooner or later confront, and that is the lack of differentiation between party and government, and between the state and the economy. The failure to differentiate has made China’s political class rich beyond its wildest imagination. Unchecked corruption, the outcome of this conflation of spheres, will eventually corrode the party and undermine its right to rule the nation. Looking at the matter closely, one may find that it is money, ultimately, that lies at the root of the power struggle that led to the downfall of Bo Xilai.

As China’s wealth-creating machine slows down, the communist leadership will find it increasingly harder to fulfill its promise to make everyone rich. It then has no choice but to formulate its legitimacy in other ways. It cannot ignore the growing clamor for participation of an awakened citizenry empowered by digital communication. On this score, the theory is clearly on the side of America.