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China Likes America’s ‘Leadership Transition’ Better Than Its Own

BEIJING—Just two days after Americans elect a president, China’s Communist Party overlords will convene their 18th Congress, which will conclude a few days later when the names of the country’s next rulers will finally be made public. But though the timing of the political season in these two countries has overlapped, they could hardly be more different in style—and, judging from Chinese social media, it's not just Americans who think their “leadership transition” is more interesting than China's.

Americans have been subjected to more than a year of nearly nonstop electioneering—the Republican primaries with their endless debates, the shifting lineup of improbable frontrunners, the attack ads, the conventions, “47 percent,” the tracking polls, Nate Silver’s projections, and the impact of Superstorm Sandy. Chinese, meanwhile, have been subjected to—mostly an official media blackout. 

And unlike the U.S. election, which has unexpectedly turned into a down-to-the-wire contest pitting Mitt Romney’s “momentum” against Barack Obama’s machine, the outcome here in China has never really been in doubt, at least not since October 18, 2010. That was the day the Party’s Central Committee formally named Vice-president Xi Jinping as vice-chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission. Xi’s elevation to the commission—the body in charge of the 2.3 million-member People’s Liberation Army—squashed any lingering rumors of backroom palace intrigue and cemented the portly Xi’s standing as China’s president-in-waiting.

So for Chinese, the only thing left to game out is the list of people who will round out Xi’s leadership team. And that decision, like the vice-president’s appointment, won’t be made by China’s 1.3 billion citizens. Neither will it be made by the 2270 delegates to the Party Congress, despite all the elaborate trappings being put in place for the conclave. Rather, the decision on who runs China will have already been made by a tiny clique of old Communists stalwarts, including the current Politburo members and a handful of of septuagenarian and octogenarian Party Grandees.

Small wonder then that China’s hyperactive Internet community, known here as Netizens, is paying scant attention to the maneuverings behind the Red Curtains of power. “I don’t care!” said a Web-savy 28-year-old woman, tapping into her iPad and shaking her head dismissively, in a typical reaction. Li Datong, a journalist who was fired as an editor at China Youth Daily for exposing corruption and pushing the limits of censorship, told me; “There won’t be any surprising news coming out of the 18th Party Congress.”

But China’s Netizens are intensely following this fall’s other big leadership contest, the one going on now in the United States. It offers everything the transition here doesn’t—competitive campaigns, televised and often testy debates, public participation, and, most of all, real suspense about the outcome: in short, everything that civic-minded Chinese long for.

Consider the quotes from some Chinese Netizens as expressed on “weibo,” the Twitter-like microblogging service that has become like this vast nation’s digital version of the town square—and the best proxy for gauging public sentiment among China’s increasingly urban and wired population. One weibo user, under the name “Zuilitiaodengkaijian” recently wrote: “All the mainstream web sites are focusing on all the speeches by Obama and Romney about how they’d govern the country. But no one talks abut 18th Party Congress. Sina (the Internet media company that hosts the most popular weibo site) even censored the three words ‘18th Party Congress ‘ in its search engine. It's so absurd for them to be so secretive about it. Why don’t you dare stand up and walk in the daylight, if you are going to govern the country?”

Another user, called “gw1710,” after watching the final American presidential debate, wrote: “It's an election for them (Americans), but it’s an internal decision for us. How do you compare?  …The rich keep getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. I really don't want to stay in this country.” And a Netizen, calling himself “Guliyeweiqi,” posted on weibo: “Although Mainland China is a one party state, competitive elections … should still be adopted here. But that’s just some luxurious dream.”

The fact that the Chinese public was watching the American campaign and openly pining for the same thing in their country became so worrisome to the country’s Communist rulers that they decided to launch a counterattack. A spate of commentaries and editorials in the tightly-controlled state-run media—the opposite of the freewheeling, publicly-accessible weibo—have cautioned China’s citizenry not to be lured by the spectacle of American-style political theater.

The Global Times, a fire-breathing America-bashing nationalistic tabloid owned by the Communist Party’s main mouthpiece, People’s Daily, ran an unsigned commentary entitled “Beauty and Beast of democracy displayed in debates.” The commentary conceded that the reaction from many Chinese to the U.S. presidential debates “showed their admiration for U.S.-style democracy.” But it warned that the American system of electing leaders “has its risks in other parts of the world.” China, it concluded, “was charting a democratic road for itself.”

The reasons China’s Communist rulers insist their country can't abide a more open democratic process are familiar cliches by now. China is still developing, and democracy is a luxury of the more advanced Western nations. Chinese people care more about getting a good job, finding decent housing, and educating their children. And of course there is the old “Asian values” meme; that democracy runs counter to East Asia’s paternalistic Confucian tradition.

The problem is that when the Chinese public receives exposure to democratic elections in other countries, it clearly likes what it sees. This isn't just a matter of watching the U.S.; Chinese are also observing the democratic progress in neighboring countries. Burmese voted in parliamentary elections in April that brought Aug San Suu Kyi into parliament after years of house arrest. South Koreans will vote for a new president in December. And Taiwanese—which China considers a rogue province—turned out in large numbers in elections last January that returned President Ma Ying-jeou to office.

Whether China will remain a democratic outlier in the near future will largely be determined by Xi, the man who will take the helm of the Communist Party in November, and Li Keqiang, who is widely tipped to become his prime minister. And despite some optimism from those wishing for reform, no one really knows for sure where they stand. “The question is, how capable are they?" said Li Datong, the journalist. "Can the Party bear the idea that their power will be weakened, and they might possibility lose their regime? Whether the Communist Party is ready for that or not is a mystery.” But while China's rulers ponder such questions behind closed doors, the Chinese public will continue advancing the conversation without them.

Keith Richburg is the Beijing correspondent for the Washington Post.