China and the United States both launch leadership transitions this week. Earnest persons, in fear or hope, turn a raindrop of coincidence into a storm of meaning. In fact, November 6 here and November 8 in Beijing, when the Chinese Communist party (CCP) opens its 18th congress, have nothing in common except dual fascination to a jumpy world.

The CCP faces numerous challenges, including economic slowdown, Japan’s rediscovered backbone, unhappy Tibetans and Muslims within the borders of the People’s Republic of China, quarrels with Southeast Asian neighbors over islands, Europe’s thin wallets, disaster in Syria and loss of a friendly dictator in Libya, constraints from the WTO, not to speak of Washington’s gyrations. But over six decades Beijing has never had to face judgment by a vote of the Chinese people.

Teaching last year at Shandong University in Jinan, I asked one bright student named Wu why he joined the Communist party. “Useful in finding a job after graduation and to realize my dream of social progress.” Might he later teach or work for the government? “No, when China becomes a democracy I want to be a senator for my [Shaanxi] province.”

“Won’t your critics in the Senate hold it against you that you joined the CCP as a student?”

Reasoned Wu: “Putin worked for the KGB for a long time. That hasn’t become an obstacle for his political career.” Whether he’s right or wrong in that calculation, Wu won’t soon become Senator Wu of Shaanxi.

The CCP gives lip service to democracy as an aim and says Hong Kong may elect its leader eventually. When Premier Wen Jiabao came to Harvard in 2003 he told students to be patient as China is “big” and “underdeveloped.” But eight years under President Hu Jintao and Wen have not brought national elections one inch nearer.

Unknown as I write is who will occupy the White House on January 21, 2013. But both our candidates appeal to the single court of popular sentiment, and both will accept the verdict of November 6. This process is mysterious to most Chinese.

Visiting China in November 1988, I voted at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu and spent election night in a ballroom at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel in Beijing, where the U.S. embassy invited the public to watch ABC News, with simultaneous Chinese translation, tally the totals for “Bu Shi” and “Duka Jisi.” The huge, youthful crowd, intermingling with scores of foreigners, was variously absorbed, gazing in silence, taking notes on small pads, chatting animatedly, and gasping as the result became clear.

“Who did you vote for?” a Chinese acquaintance inquired. Strangers unblushingly pressed the same question. To them an election was wondrous, nothing to be coy about, and naturally one would boast of a preference. None of these politically hungry souls had ever cast a vote on their leader. The 18th CCP Congress

will seek no opinion from them; neither will the rubber stamp parliament that ratifies party policy in the spring.

Beijing in 2012 is night and day from 1988 and prior years. In the Mao era (until 1976) and early Deng Xiao-ping years (1980s), American elections were followed only by a Communist party elite through privileged information and nonpublic Chinese newsletters. The Obama-Romney tussle has been reported by Chinese government TV, and “netizens” discuss it raucously. People are free to complain about certain grievances in ways not available in 1988. But they are as bereft of choice in their leaders as they were 24 years ago watching ABC News at the Great Wall Sheraton.

China’s government has become a meritocracy rather than a band of Communist brothers, the succession struggle for the top job of party chairman and state president has been smoothed over, domestic policies are often deftly calibrated between stability and freedom. But having no say in who governs bugs young Chinese like Wu.

The 18th CCP Congress will be a “flower vase,” as the Chinese call a decorative institution, not unlike our party conventions these days. Promises will be made but few decisions. Most Chinese will not be excited by speeches extolling Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Thought. It is an improvement that people can ignore politics if they wish. Unchanged is the total absence of popular participation as Xi Jinping, now vice president, is elevated to replace Hu, and half a dozen others rise to join the enigmatic Xi in the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo.

That all this is done in the name of democracy and socialism seems weird, as we behold Wen’s relatives storing up billions and skullduggery surrounding the fallen Bo Xilai and his wife from Chongqing. In the Mao era a slogan was promulgated, “Only Socialism Can Save China.” Cynics now quip, “Only China Can Save Socialism”—not that many beyond Cuba and North Korea care very much.

The party-state’s preference in a U.S. election has long reflected a calculation of China’s national interest. In 1971 while accompanying Gough Whitlam, soon to be prime minister of Australia, in talks with Zhou Enlai and others, I wrote a front-page story in the Washington Post about CCP views of American political parties. Henry Kissinger, not long back from his secret trip to Beijing for President Richard Nixon, phoned me. “That was the most interesting article I have read from China.” What the national security adviser liked was that the Chinese leaders said they preferred dealing with Republicans over Democrats, because Democrats (Truman and Acheson) had backed Chiang Kai-shek to the end and fought China in Korea, and because Democrats were ready for “collusion with Moscow” (then an evil stance in Beijing’s eyes). A specialized view, but such is Beijing’s habit. Sometimes—perhaps this week—the CCP simply prefers the devil it knows to a fresh devil.

New today is the Chinese public’s concern with the United States because of trade fluctuations and currency rates, the desire to study on a U.S. campus, and enjoyment of U.S. popular culture and sports. All this has no necessary relation to Hu’s berating Obama for seeing the Dalai Lama or selling planes to Taiwan. Only on one major current issue does popular sentiment about the United States seem in sync with government policy: suspicion that Washington is “conspiring” with Tokyo over the disputed Senkaku islands, which lie near China, Japan, and Taiwan.

A presidential election cleanses dross from public life. Any remaining doubts about Obama’s birth certificate will be forgotten if he’s reelected, as will Romney’s record at Bain if he wins. Without such purging through a vote, Chinese politics remains maneuver above and rumor below. We fight like cats during a campaign then calm down after the vote. Political tension never subsides in China. Freedom defines itself best when absent. Tired of the long electoral grind? Be grateful; Chinese would jump at the chance to choose their leader.

Ross Terrill is the author of The New Chinese Empire (Basic Books), the biographies Mao and Madame Mao (both Stanford), and Myself and China, published in Chinese in Beijing.

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