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The Monitor's View

China’s backroom politics

While US presidential candidates openly campaigned to win votes, China’s new leaders were chosen in secret by a shadowy elite.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / November 6, 2012

A paramilitary policeman stands guard in front of a screen displaying propaganda slogans on Beijing's Tiananmen Square Nov. 6. Security has been tightened around the square and the adjoining Great Hall of the People as China opens its 18th Communist Party Congress.

David Gray/Reuters

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The streets of Beijing are being heavily patrolled this week. Citizens who have complaints to bring before the Communist Party’s 18th Congress at the Great Hall of the People are being stopped and turned back.

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Ordinary Chinese would like their leaders to know what they think and what problems they’re facing. Like 19th-century Russian peasants, they cling to the hope that “if only the czar knew,” the wrongs would be righted.

But unlike the US citizens taking part in the elections held today in the United States, Chinese citizens have few ways to signal their feelings. If genuine protests break out, they are put down. Reformers may reach an audience via the Internet for a while, but if they become too influential they are silenced. Chinese academics and analysts can speak to foreigners with some candor, as long as their opinions don’t reach widely back into China.

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China’s communist oligarchs have delivered a great leap forward in economic terms, a boom similar in some ways to the post-World War II decades in America when the US economy dominated the world.

China’s leaders have tried to juggle opening up the economy to operate as a free market without losing control of the flow of ideas. It hasn’t been an easy task.

Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to become the party’s new general secretary and Vice Premier Li Keqiang is expected to be named premier at the conclusion of the party congress. They represent a new generation of leaders born in the latter half of the 20th century who have experienced the benefits of the Chinese economic miracle.

But they were chosen by the party’s elite, behind closed doors. Even close China-watchers can only speculate about what their policies will be. They weren’t forced to go to voters to explain their vision for their country’s future and ask for support.

A recent poll of Chinese people conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project reveals some of what ordinary Chinese citizens would tell their leaders if they had the chance. An overwhelming 92 percent say their standard of living is better than what their parents experienced at a similar age. Seven out of 10 say they are better off financially than they were five years ago.

But economists expect economic growth to cool significantly in the years ahead unless China can address some of its endemic problems.

A big one is corruption. About half of those polled say corrupt government officials are a major problem, a significant jump from 39 percent four years ago.

They’re also concerned about a growing gap between the rich and poor, with roughly 80 percent agreeing that the “rich just get richer while the poor get poorer.” And as more Chinese rise into the middle class and demand consumer goods, concerns are rising dramatically about the purity and safety of the food and medicines they consume.

Despite being barraged with anti-US propaganda, Chinese citizens have developed a favorable view of the American political system, with 52 percent saying they like US ideas about democracy.

“The 18th Party Congress is a meeting for the party. We ordinary people can only watch it as an audience,” a Peking University student told The Associated Press. “The US presidential election is a campaign that gets everyone involved.”

A Chinese pop star, known as Gao, was so intrigued by American democracy that he posted a video explaining the arcane US electoral college system of choosing the US president on a video-sharing website. He shared his opinion that America’s Founding Fathers are the “greatest group of people in history.”

The Chinese people are ready for freer expression of thought and a freer political system to match their freer economic system. The new Chinese leadership, chosen without the consent of the governed, would do well to provide it.

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