America’s Election, China’s Transition

07 Nov 2012

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Kayode Komolafe,

In the build-up to the United States presidential election which took place yesterday, a jingle on the CNN seemed to encapsulate the way the rest of the world should view the election: the jingle is to the effect that the decision is America’s, but the impact will be on all of us. Nothing less should be expected as the implication of the election of the leader of the only super power with the largest economy. That is what makes the election a defining political event of the year. Yet, there is another leadership transition that is well afoot in China.

A party chief, Xi Jinping, will be named as the powerful General Secretary of the Chinese Communist at the 18th party congress, which opens in Beijing tomorrow.  Xi would be formally elected president by the parliament in March next year.  The last time there was a political transition in China   was 10 years ago.  As the second largest economy in the world, which is even projected to become the largest in a matter of decades by some economists, the selection of a new leader in China is also of global consequences.

According to the polls preceding the American presidential election, it was too close to call.  Hence the seeming tension in the last days of the vigorous campaigns. Following the campaigns, the Democratic candidate, President Barack Obama, reportedly said that in the election, “anything can happen”.  Long after the election, psephologists (experts in matters of election) will continue to ponder the psychology of the average American voter in this election. For instance, some of those who were not too happy with the performance of Obama were also not convinced about the shifting positions of his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, on major issues of the election. As a result, a lot weight was assigned to the constituency of the undecided voters even at the last minute.

The London-based Financial Times puts the matter like this in an endorsement of Obama: “Compared to 2008, when Barack Obama emerged triumphant against all the early odds, the 2012 campaign has offered little inspiration, still less instruction, on what Mr. Obama or his Republican rival Mitt Romney would actually do in office”.  The newspaper believes that the interventionist, reformist political philosophy of Obama would be helpful to the United States in its current economic crisis. A feature of the crisis is worsening inequality, which puts into serious question the fabled American dream. Job creation was a central issue of the election. 

It has also been estimated that the election is the most expensive in history in American electoral history. Some pundits have estimated that the two candidates were spending on the average $2.3 million per day!  What the United States has just had is the best election for those who can afford the cost of the campaign. Theorists of liberal democracy would have to reflect more critically on the huge democratic deficit that this development represents. 

There may be other Americans who have ideas that are superior to that of Obama and Romney in solving the problems but who could not afford the prohibitive cost of campaigns.  The system would never throw such people no matter what the constitution says about the freedom to seek election. It is part of the systemic limitation in the workings of western liberal democracy, which the eminent investigative reporter, Greg Palast, masterly demonstrates in his book entitled “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy”.  What this and other irrefutable observations suggest is that there is the need to deepen democracy even in America and other western countries. The future indeed belongs to popular democracy.

Despite this deficit, no other forms of democracy, of course, exist in the books of enthusiasts of liberal democracy.  So it would be sacrilegious in the temple of liberal democracy to say that what is taking place in China has anything to do with democracy. It does not matter that although China operates a one-party system, the delegates to the party congress were elected in their various constituencies.

The matter is made worse for China by the seemingly tense political atmosphere in which the 18th Congress is being held.  Few months to the transition, a member of the Politburo, Bo Xilai, was purged for corruption and alleged cover-up of murder of a British citizen. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has been   busy defending himself and his family against grave allegations contained in October 25 edition of New York Times. According to the newspaper after 10 years in office, Wen and his family have allegedly amassed wealth illegally to the tune of  $2.7 billion.  The worry for the leadership in China should, therefore, not be whether the current transition could pass the liberal democratic test; the danger is that issues such as the Bo saga and the allegation against Wen could undermine the legitimacy of the Communist Party. The matter should also be put in larger context.  Since the turning point in 1979, China has creatively liberalised its economy, employing market tools and not surrendering to the forces of market, as neo-liberals would wish. 

China has been a complex story of a successful   capitalist development without liberal democracy.  As the Italian economist, Giovanni Arrighi, argues in his book, Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century, the Chinese economy has domesticated non-capitalist market in a way Britain or Germany has not been able to do to its economy.   It is no mean feat that in a matter of three decades the liberal reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping have lifted China to the Number Two position and indeed made China the fasted growing economy. 

The most populous country on earth also has the largest foreign reserve. As a result of the economic prosperity millions have been lifted out of poverty in an unprecedented manner. Inevitably, however, China has to face the concomitant vices of capitalist development - widening inequality, elite corruption, abuse of   land reform and environmental irresponsibility in the name of industrial growth. All these constitute a recipe for instability. The poor are bound to resist such a system from below. Yet, China cannot afford instability caused by socio-economic crisis.  With a population of 1.3 billion, China is neither Greek nor Spain.

China’s impact on the rest of the world is largely because of its economic clout. It is competing favourably with other industrial powers in scrambling for the extraction of oil and raw materials and it is widening the frontier of its markets. Chinese companies are foreign investors of choice in many African countries. The huge irony is often ignored that some of the Chinese companies actively playing the privatisation game in Africa as foreign private investors are largely publicly owned at home.

Nigeria now goes   for Chinese loans to fund infrastructural development  and  the Chinese language is proposed  to be incorporated into  the school curriculum. So the once- in -a -decade leadership change in China should interest us in Africa as the election of the American president.
Meanwhile, not a few liberal scholars have predicted that China may unravel under the weight of   the contradiction of economic liberalisation operated by the political leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. 

The resolution of this contradiction is part of the challenge facing the leadership of Xi. But the leadership should not allow itself to be goaded into non-organic reforms that could end in chaos. The lesson of the privatisation in Russia that resulted into almost parceling up the country for barons to share should be learnt by China.  It has taken a Putin to retrieve Russia from the capitalist barons. China should not be stampeded into anarchic reforms by cynics such as the conference of scholars quoted by the London Economist in its current edition as positing that China is “unstable at the grass roots, dejected at the middle strata and out of control at the top”.

China should rather summon the same creativity it employed in economic reform to rethink its political system on its own terms. There is no final word on democracy by any country. China is an undisputed economic giant. The country can also make huge contributions to democratic thoughts and practice.  

Tags: Backpage, Featured, America, Election, Transition

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