Ireland and the presidential election... in China

The election that will take place in China tomorrow could have profound effects on Ireland’s prosperity, write Neil Collins and Yu-Wen Chen

Ireland and the presidential election... in China

TOMORROW an important election takes place abroad and, while the outcome is still unclear, it will have profound effects on Ireland’s prosperity and the prospects for world peace.

The new president’s attitude to free trade and the use of military force in places far from his capital are critical. Fortunately, in his recent visit to Ireland the likely victor spoke glowingly of the relations between his country and ours. Strangely, however, the election has hardly been covered by the overseas media.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will begin to undergo a leadership transition in the 18th party congress. Some members of the politburo, the most powerful institution in China, will retire. Among them is the current general secretary and president Hu Jinto. Hu is expected to be replaced by Xi Jinping, the current vice-president — yet another politician to have played hurling in Croke Park.

Xi is expected to become the new general secretary of the party at the congress, paving the way for him to become president in 2013. He will be taking over one of the most powerful jobs in the world but, unlike his American counterpart also being elected this week, we know very little about the dynamics of the election.

Predictably, it has featured photo opportunities abroad, trumpeting of policy successes at home, and relentless campaigning. Nevertheless, the process is opaque. Probably, the most important thing about it is that it is happening at all. When many other one-party, autocratic states have witnessed violent and unpredictable regime change, the people’s republic will see one set of leaders step aside gracefully after ruling for 10 years to allow the next generation to take over.

The history of China going back to imperial times has seldom seen such an orderly transition. Assuming the “mandate of heaven” has frequently been a gory business, but Xi Jinping and his generation of Chinese leaders have seen enough turmoil to value an orderly transition. While much is made of their status as “princelings”, the privileged offspring of former CCP champions, Xi and the others are also products of the Cultural Revolution, a time of anarchy and terror to match the French Revolution. Their parents were bullied, exiled, and even murdered in a period of political mayhem that still tutors their outlook.

Control is important so competition must be managed to give the appearance of “harmony”, the CCP’s mantra under Hu Jintao the outgoing top man. The harmony is deceptive. There is room for ambitious political figures to fight their way up the political ladder. Factional politics is rife in China. The party likes to stress that it has a collective leadership nowadays. But the essential meaning of that term is a balance of factions.

Ambitious individuals will have to ally with like-minded CCP members and appeal to powerful interests outside. Collective leadership implies infighting among factions, and hence policy decisions to some extent are made through collective efforts.

The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949 and its early leaders were feted for their part in the nation’s war of independence. Like Ireland in the 1960s, new politicians have come to the fore who were not directly involved in the struggle for freedom. Their ideological grounding is less communist and more pragmatic than that of the founders of the state though, like our own politicians, they have to be deferential to the rhetoric of “the dead generations”.

Xi and his fellow leaders now have to appear both close to the people and competent at managing the government. Food safety, house prices, and job security must be watched carefully and blatant corruption tackled with public fervour.

Xi is born of a “princeling” background but has also suffered. He was sent to “be re-educated” in the countryside as a teenager during the cultural revolution. This has cultivated a strong personality in Xi. He is cautious in his political career, trying not to play his cards too openly and being attentive to senior leaders’ views. He has proven himself to be capable of managing the machinery of government and is credited with the successful handling of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. During his recent visit to Co Clare, Xi acknowledged the lessons learned from the Shannon Duty Free Zone for the early initiatives in China’s own “opening up”.

Xi’s ascent contrasts with thespectacular crash of a potential rival Bo Xilai whose “campaigning” for election to the all-powerful politburo standing committee crossed the line between being assertive within the CCP and courting favour outside it.

The international media has covered a lot of the Bo Xilai scandal this year. While it is true that the scandal reveals deep-rooted corruption in China, another significant insight is that candidates should not ignore the rules of factional politics between China’s leaders. The flamboyant Bo, Mr Noisy, has been purged but Xi, Mr Quiet, is ready to take the helm.

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