Because of an unlikely alignment of the Chinese and American political calendars, both countries are going through leadership changes in the space of a few weeks. But the two transitions look wildly different. Consider the tight restrictions on life in Beijing these past few weeks:
Kitchen knives and pencil sharpeners reportedly have been pulled from store shelves. . . .
Human rights groups report that activists and petitioners are being rounded up ahead of the congress. . . .
The government has blocked searches for the phrase “18th Party Congress” on websites including China’s popular Twitter-like Sina Weibo. . . .
Taxi drivers have been told to remove window handles, to avoid sensitive parts of the city and not to open their windows or doors if they pass “important venues.” Some taxi drivers, but not all, have been told to ask passengers to sign a “traveling agreement” if they want to go near Tiananmen Square. . . .
A memo circulating on Weibo warned taxi drivers to be on guard against passengers who may want to cast balloons with slogans or throw “pingpong balls with reactionary words.” . . .
Police in the capital are asking that Chinese show their ID cards and foreigners their passports when buying remote-controlled model aircraft over safety concerns. . .
Americans, especially those on the left, were very concerned in the lead-up to the election on Tuesday that draconian voter identification laws or other voting restrictions would amount to mass disenfranchisement. The Chinese people, by contrast, have no say at all in their country’s leadership changes.
Today, in his final speech as president, Hu Jintao dashed any hope that the Communist Party would relinquish its control on Chinese politics: “We must uphold leadership of the party. . . . We should steadily enhance the vitality of the state-owned sector of the economy and its capacity to leverage and influence the economy. . . . We must not take the old path that is closed and rigid, nor must we take the evil road of changing flags and banners.”
One Weibo user responded, “So we will walk in place until we die.”
The Communist Party and its policies will make the country stronger and keep it stable, its leaders argue. Don’t question the technocrats. Democracy in China would be so messy that economic growth and therefore political stability would be lost. It’s a powerful vision but it’s not clear how much longer the formula can work.
The next American election is due in 2016 and though we don’t know who the candidates will be, much less who will win, we know roughly what the process will be like. China’s next scheduled transition isn’t due until 2022; nobody in China or anywhere else knows whether China will stick to that process or whether something entirely different will be going on there.
The bad case of nerves on display in Beijing this week suggests that those who know China’s situation best are extremely worried about the stability and durability of the system they have built.