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No Vote in China

A billion people disenfranchised.

Nov 12, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 09 • By ROSS TERRILL
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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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