Superpowers in transition

Posted at 10/29/2012 7:07 PM | Updated as of 10/29/2012 7:07 PM

One superpower and one emerging superpower are in political transition. In just over a week, the United States will be having its presidential election, one that promises to be the most divisive in recent memory. China will have its 18th National Party Congress that could also prove to be a turning point.

Whoever wins the American contest will likely find it very difficult to govern. The Washington Gridlock is not about to be broken. The country is split almost right down the middle and the dramatically different world views won’t change after the last electoral vote is counted.

In China, the last few months leading to the party congress had been quite tumultuous. As in America, two contrasting view points of how China should proceed are competing for supremacy.

Should China go back to its roots in Mao thought and a more fundamentalist practice of socialism? Or should China go on the route prescribed by Deng Xiaoping which has seen China grow in economic power through capitalism?

The political transition in both countries is important to the world for many reasons. I had more than once written in this column that the rest of the world should be allowed to vote in American elections because whoever ends up at the White House affects the rest of the planet for good or evil.

As for China, we ought to be interested on what will be announced in the party congress on November 8 because we are geographically within China’s shadow. The new leadership in Beijing will have a lot to say about peace and economic growth in our part of the world.

Still smarting from a century of oppression by Western powers and Japan, China is unsure of how to assert itself and yet avoid looking like the neighborhood bully. China still has to learn to act more in tune with its rise as Asia’s emerging superpower. Recent Chinese belligerence damaged years of Chinese reassurance to its neighbors of its peaceful intent. It forced some Asean countries to seek the US umbrella of protection.

The political thriller in the US and China is underscored by a smoldering social revolution that could change these nations. The widening gap between the rich and the poor in America amidst the backdrop of an economic recession is causing a sharp division on what it means to be American. China, on the other hand, is at a crossroad. Whoever emerges to lead this nation would define the kind of world power China would eventually be.

The change is already starting to happen ahead of the party congress and it had not been pretty. The Bo Xilai affair cuts deep into the rivalries between the ideological Maoists and the pragmatic Dengists in the Chinese Communist Party leadership. The so-called generational transfer of power complicates the process.

Such past transitions were marred by the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. However, the last Party Congress in 2002 which was also considered a generational change was peaceful and orderly.

What will happen next week in China is a once-in-a-decade leadership change. Around two-thirds of key party and government positions will change hands. Seven out of nine members of the Standing Committee, China’s supreme decision-making body will be changed. In the State Council, seven out of eight people are said to be highly likely replaced. Seven out of ten members of the central military commission will also be replaced.

This leadership change is also happening at a time when Chinese society itself is in transition. China likes to point out it is still a developing country despite its $3.29 trillion foreign exchange reserves as of the end of September 2012, the world’s largest.

According to the World Bank, China is now an upper-middle-income country. Chinese statistics indicate that as of 2010, around 25 percent of the country as a whole and 37 percent of China’s urban population is now considered middle class. But regional development is varied. While the coastal areas are thriving, poverty is widespread in the inland regions.

And in the cities, there's a growing resentment by the middle class and the poor people at the widening gap between them and China’s rich, many so-called “princelings” or offspring of the power elite. As more young educated people ascend the ranks of the middle class, one analyst observes “the Chinese people are demanding more political transparency and accountability, and the new leadership will have to answer those demands to stay in power.”

The generational shift in China’s leadership, a process done pretty much in secret, should matter to us. China, after all, is now the world’s second most important economy. And given our recent problems at the West Philippine Sea, the implications to our national security are very significant.

Ahead of the party congress, we got a hint over the weekend on who is emerging supreme in China’s internal battle for political and ideological supremacy.

It was reported that the Politburo which met under the leadership of President Hu Jintao dropped references to Chairman Mao's thoughts in finalizing crucial documents to be adopted by the forthcoming 18th Communist Party Congress. Analysts say the removal of Mao thought signals a push for reform.

According to Reuters, the Politburo left out what had been standard wording in official statements citing Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. Zheng Yongnian, the director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, told Reuters that by removing Mao Zedong Thought, the top leaders are signaling a push for reforms.

"Before the fall of Bo Xilai, that direction was not so clear. But now it's become quite clear. I mean, less Maoism, but more Dengism." This, he said, is similar to what happened when Deng introduced market reforms that turned China from a backwater into an economic powerhouse.

Singapore's Zheng told Reuters Mao's vision had become irrelevant as many Chinese are now apathetic about him. The doctrine could be de-emphasized in the amendment to China's constitution during the congress, he said. "Only the left side cares about it. For most people, for the young generation, they don't care about it. The memory is gone."

According to Reuters, State media, as well as experts close to the government, have made increasingly strident calls for bold reform to avoid a crisis, though nobody seriously expects a move towards full democracy. The Study Times, a newspaper published by the Central Party School which trains rising officials, lauded Singapore's form of closely managed democracy and its long-ruling main party for having genuine popular support.

As for the American election, a CNN op/ed piece written by Frida Ghitis of the Miami Herald noted that America’s importance to the world has waned in recent times. “Today, America seems little more than a bystander on many of the top global issues. The European economic crisis does not hinge on U.S. actions. Developing economies worry more about Chinese than American growth.”

Compared to the days of the Iraq war, the CNN analyst observed, the impact of the American presidential elections on the lives of non-Americans seems to have diminished. Nevertheless, CNN reports that a number of polls show Barack Obama is the overwhelming favorite to win this election among non-Americans.

“The Gallup Global Poll found Obama ahead by 81% to 19%. Another poll commissioned by the BBC and conducted in 21 countries showed Obama ahead 50% to 21%. The president was ahead everywhere except in Pakistan, where Romney edged ahead…”

No real change is expected. The presidential debates seem to indicate that whoever wins on November 6 will continue the current foreign policy and that includes the announced “pivot to the Asia-Pacific region” of American military forces. Even as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has taken pains to say the strategy is not meant to contain China, the effect will be the same. After all, Obama did say the pivot is “sending a very clear signal that America is a Pacific power, that we are going to have a presence there."

Propaganda from Beijing and Washington may seem to suggest a degree of official animosity. But both nations know they are economic Siamese twins, too hopelessly connected to risk a serious political break or an open war.

Based on his campaign rhetoric, a Romney victory may affect the delicate diplomatic balance in America’s relations with China and precipitate a trade war. But mercifully, experience shows what are said in campaigns are forgotten once a candidate settles in and starts feeling the heavy burden of responsibilities that comes with being POTUS.

Then again too, America’s very serious fiscal problem and domestic political pressures arising from their sluggish economy may limit America’s overseas ambitions. The lessons of Iraq and how the American neocons tried to force feed democracy to the Iraqis will probably make whoever wins next week a lot more gun shy than George W Bush was.

Nevertheless, the danger of the Israelis getting the Americans involved in a war in Iran is real. Israel is having an election too early next year which is more of a referendum on the war making abilities of current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The Israeli premier is expected to get that authority in this election.

Given the enormity of their domestic problems, America may no longer have as much appetite for foreign involvement. But it cannot avoid still being the most important nation on earth.

There is reason to hope that the balance of power in China is now tilting in favor of the followers of Deng. If this happens, the world is assured of China’s continued modernization and peaceful integration in world affairs.

In America, there is reason to worry that the extreme right may get a chance to wield power, and that could prove disruptive based on recent experience with the neocons. Our only hope if Romney wins is that he will instinctively revert to his more reasonable moderate New England track record and drop the Tea Party election rhetoric.

Whoever wins the American presidential election will still be the most powerful person in the world. Obama seems to be the more intellectually mature and experienced to assume that role. For now, everything depends on how that small sliver of remaining independent American voters will vote next week. We can only wait and see.

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Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.