x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 August 2017

US and China are still polls apart

They are the world's top two economies, yet they are just as philisophically opposed as ever. You only have to look at how they elect their leaders. Hannah Gardner reports from Beijing

A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. China remained an international pariah for years after the massacre.
A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. China remained an international pariah for years after the massacre.

BEIJING // The last time a US presidential election coincided with the Chinese Communist Party Congress was in 1992, when Bill Clinton won the White House and Jiang Zemin became general secretary.

China was an international pariah then, three years after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Despite more than a decade of market-orientated reforms, 300 million citizens still lived in poverty.

Fast forward 20 years and China's economy is second only to that of the US, and is predicted by some experts to pass it within the decade. For some, Beijing has also become a centre of global power to rival Washington.

Yet in terms of political culture, these two "superpowers" remain worlds apart. There is no better illustration of that than the way they choose their leaders.

When the US president is elected on Tuesday, it will mark the end of an 18-month democratic process that started with about 20 would-be candidates. In the past months the final two candidates, Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney, have been crossing the country looking for votes.

Contrast this with China where, on November 15, after months of secretive negotiations and a week-long congress in Beijing, the Communist Party will name the men who will run the country for the next 10 years.

The identity of the future leader of China has been an open secret since at least 2010: Xi Jinping. He is widely expected to take over from Hu Jintao as general secretary, which makes him head of state.

Mr Xi is one of only two members of the current nine-man politburo standing committee, the top decision-making body, who is not retiring.

There is likewise no secret about who will take over from Wen Jiabao as the head of government: Li Keqiang, the other member of the committee who is not retiring.

While the promotion of Mr Xi and Mr Li is widely known, the party has never officially confirmed it because China likes to present itself as a democracy.

Technically, the standing committee is "elected" by the party's 370-member central committee. That body is "elected" by the 2,270-member party congress, which will start meeting on Thursday.

To strengthen the illusion that the new leaders are selected by the people rather than the congress, Chinese television has been in overdrive showing how members of the general public are "welcoming the 18th congress".

The people design huge floral displays, prepare patriotic dance routines and build domino models.

But none of them will have a chance to review their new leaders' qualifications, let alone vote.

As a result, many Chinese people are more interested in the US election than their own leadership changes.

Despite the nearly half-day time difference, the three US presidential debates were watched live on websites such as ifeng.cn and translated by members of its growing army of "netizens".

DVDs went on sale online, although they are billed as an English teaching tools.

"Discussing national issues openly and upfront is so different from having a meeting behind a closed door," said one person who watched the debates online.

Another wrote: "Isn't it a shame that I, a citizen of China, know more about how the US elects its leader than I do about our system."

Yet few suggest China should adopt a US-style democracy now. While many express frustration at corruption and abuse of power, they are also conscious of the vast improvements in living standards over the past 30 years.

"Democracy is not to be achieved in one day," wrote Yishiting on his Weibo micro-blogging account. "I really don't know what kind of person would be elected if everybody voted now.

"At least I don't think I'm ready."