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This essay was published in
The Globe and Mail
November 2, 2012
Will the leadership choices in China and the U.S. make a difference?

This week, the two superpowers will settle the question of leadership. On Tuesday, about 130 million U.S. voters will choose a president. On Thursday, an elite handful will meet to select the next leader of China.

The residents of Ohio may ultimately decide who wins the White House, probably late on Tuesday night. Plans to shift Zhongnanhai power from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping can be traced back to 2007.

Similarities end, in other words, with the coincidental timing. One is democratic and populist, the other the very opposite. One process produces a leader who has survived the hazing ritual – and unrelenting scrutiny – of an open election. The other, so far as anyone knows, births one skilled at in-fighting, ladder climbing and dyeing his hair.

As for the National Congress in Beijing that will inaugurate the regime of president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang, along with a new Standing Committee, it is either a procedural façade or a political farce – depending on your patience with totalitarian rule. No decision of any import will be made by either the 2,270 delegates to the congress or the 400 Central Committee members. It will all come down to a few Party men replacing themselves with a few other Party men.

The pending full transfer of power, China’s first since 2002, has been unusually fraught. For that hint of untidiness, blame a few factors. For the first time since the creation of the People’s Republic in 1949, there is no founding elder to hand-pick a successor. A Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping was not to be denied; a Zhang Zemin, less so.

Second, the lurid collapse this year of Bo Xilai, an insider who surmounted his shortcomings (spectacular corruption and Mafia boss impulses) to be in line for a spot on the Standing Committee, sheds light on the fact that, since the 1980s, when China flirted with modest change, factions representing reform and conservative tendencies have jockeyed for ascendency. Mr. Bo was a star among conservatives, and his fall has damaged the cause.

Xi Jinping, it would seem, walks on the reform side of the line. But what he thinks about anything is largely conjecture. He had no need to express views or state positions to win the top job. He just is the new boss.

A question being asked around the world this week is which president will be more influential globally: the American or the Chinese? Underlying the query are two suppositions. The first is that American might is on the wane and its leader’s phone calls no longer automatically taken. The second is that China is on the rise, and will naturally wish to further influence global affairs.

The supposition about China’s president, at least, needs to be examined. No question, China has become a confident, aggressive player in the international marketplace. It is also now the creditor for much of the Western world, including the United States, a default position of soft economic power.

But these striking realities are not part of any ideological agenda. Chinese capital is mostly just capital, doing what capital does – strive to earn more. Much of it isn’t even affiliated with the few who appoint themselves rulers. How could it be? Even the stickiest fingers can’t control an economy of that size.

The new rulers, too, are almost certain to remain steadfast in their geopolitical ambitions: Tibet and Taiwan, North Korea and skirmishing with Japan. Anxieties about China as a territorially rapacious superpower have always been misguided, based more on how other nations behave. After all, ruling one-fifth of the planet is enough of a chore.

Finally, the leaders have changed. Since the passing of the old guard, the country has been ruled by technocrats, mostly engineers. This has been by design, to supplant toughness with training, charisma with caution.

Such men are programmed to practise the core conservatism necessary to maintain their own control. China represents many things, some of them alarming, but it does not wish to be the replacement United States. And the U.S., for all its troubles, retains its self-appointed role as the “one indispensable nation,” as its leaders, actual or aspiring, still like to put it.

Nothing in the dynamic, or the narrative, of either nation will change this coming week.

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