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The other superpower changes leaders

November 10, 2012

As the world watches, one of the world’s largest economies gathers to choose a new leader – a global power with an ever-expanding reach touching all continents, commentators can but speculate on the effects of this leadership change. As the global economy recovers from recession, reels from instability in the Middle East and prepares for a new end-game in Afghanistan, the implication of what happens in the country with which, according to President Zardari Pakistan shares a friendship “without parallel”, have far reaching ramifications across Pakistan. Indeed, the leadership change occurring in China this week could have reverberations across the world, yet has approached unnoticed, like tanks bearing down upon Tiananmen Square. On Thursday, the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party began in Beijing, with elections scheduled during the meeting for seven of the nine positions on the Politburo Standing Committee that essentially governs the country.

Overseeing the largest security apparatus in the world, monitoring everything from the websites their citizens visit to the political activities of the billion strong population, as well as the world’s second largest economy, the implications of changes to the Politburo cannot be exaggerated. Unfortunately, the implications of these new faces in the corridors of power are also hard to predict. Shrouded in secrecy, it’s still not certain who will be joining the elite club that runs the country – rumors and sources indicate 10 candidates are running to be “elected” to the seven positions, though that final list of candidates is far from confirmed.

While many of the names may remain a secret up until they are chosen to run the country, the top two names are all but certain – Vice President Xi Jingping will replace outgoing President Hu Jintao and Li Keqiang, currently the First Vice Premier will replace outgoing Premier Wen Jiabo. One reason so little is known about the process is because of how carefully the entire process has been managed and coordinated – what little news coverage the leadership transition has received has been quick to point out how “carefully scripted” the process is. Indeed, little is known about when during the week-long Congress, elections for the new positions will be held.

With such a large-scale change in leadership, the Communist Party, Chinese government and state media have been keen for the change in leaders to come across as seamless as possible, emphasising stability and continuity. Indeed, now is not the time to sow the seeds of doubt, as an article in The New Statesman lays bare the tensions pulling at the fabric of Chinese society, including “the most extreme wealth gap in Asia, rampant institutional corruption, extensive state censorship and appalling state contempt for the human rights of its citizens” .

Unfortunately for the party, these tensions have exposed themselves throughout the year. In addition to the high-profile expulsion of Politburo member Bo Xilai on charges of corruption, long considered a contender for one of the seven vacant positions, there have been murmurings of discontent on other fronts as well. The long simmering – and occasionally flaring – anger of Tibetans has sparked in the midst of this transition, with Time magazine reporting seven Tibetans self-immolating in seven days at the end of October, a sign that citizens of the restive plateau continue to call for change. Within the party edifice too, cracks have begun to appear, with reports of a rift developing between the sons and daughters of former senior Communist Party officials, the “Red Princelings” and technocrats in the party. As the son of a former senior official, replacing a self-made technocrat, China’s incoming leader will have a fine line to tread, with reports that “arguments over the suitability of Xilai between party elders almost came into blows” in August. These tensions have clearly not abated, as the third day of the Congress begins in Beijing with nothing announced yet regarding the election or candidates.

As the world’s attention remains firmly fixed on the media circus that is the American electoral system, across the Pacific winds of change are blowing across the Middle Kingdom as well. While it’s unlikely that the new leadership in China will differ much from the current leadership, as decisions within the Politburo are usually made by consensus and candidates chosen through careful grooming and vetting, the sheer scale of the new Chinese leadership is cause for concern. If nothing else, as China continues to project its power abroad through pragmatism and mega-investments, a la Gwadar, the timing of China and the United States’ leadership change raises a stark contrast. Despite the growing might of China and the growing disenchantment with the United States across the world, China’s greatest obstacle to being loved – and the United States’ greatest inspiration – remains that in one superpower leaders are elected, while in the other they are selected.


Faris Islam studied Political Science and History at Tufts University. He is based in Karachi, where he works in the development sector.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.