THE world’s two biggest economies exercised the selection of their next leaders just two days apart.
The international media made the usual observation that here were two systems working in ways that could not be more different. That is valid only up to a point, beyond which it only obscures the realities of the US and Chinese systems.
Externally, US democracy is said to offer citizens a choice of government every four years. If an incumbent fails to deliver as promised, voters can vote him out the next time.
China’s one-party system undertakes no regular elections for the public. Every 10 years, the Communist Party meets at a National Congress to identify the country’s next president and prime minister.
The common implication is that while the US system offers freedom of choice, China’s does not. These contrasting stereotypes become fuzzy in practice, however.
The US system sets two presidential terms of four years each as the limit for any individual. If an incumbent opts for re-election, his party is unlikely to entertain any challenger from the party’s ranks.
Thus the party’s candidate is predetermined, beyond the control of even party members. For the other party, some jostling among prospective candidates precedes the eventual candidate, over which ordinary party members may have no choice.
For both parties, money and party machinery (monetised infrastructure) are prerequisites. Any candidate, whether from one of the two main parties or any other, can have no hope of seriously running for the presidency without the vast financial backing required.
That is why in the US and many other Western democratic systems, the choice voters have is only one out of two parties. Third, fourth, fifth and other parties have no real chance, regardless of the value of their policies or the virtues of their candidates.
The supposedly free mainstream news media is also an accessory to this limitation. They give alternative parties scant print space or air time, on the premise that they have little clout, which ensures that they continue to have little clout.
The result is that when either the Republican or the Democratic Party wins the presidency, they differ little in the flesh. With hardly any alternative ideas penetrating this political establishment, Republicans and Democrats tend to become more conservative.
As far-right neo-conservatives entered the fray in the 2000 election, both parties moved further to the right. Critics describe the two main parties as merely two wings of the same party, or as being two right wings of the Republican Party.
The US presidency is also the choice of the system rather than of the people. The eventual winner is “elected” by the electoral vote of the Electoral College, rather than the popular vote of ordinary voters.
There are currently only 538 members of the Electoral College who decide on the next president and vice-president out of a choice of two teams. The candidacy that can secure 270 votes wins the White House.
In China, 2,270 delegates of the Communist Party meet at the National Congress every five years to elect the party’s highest decision-making body, the Central Committee (CC). Some 350 members of the CC then decide on the party’s General Secretary and members of the Politburo, Standing Committee and Central Military Commission.
The CC is said to experience high turnovers at election time. In each of the past half-dozen national congresses, more than 60% of committee members have been replaced.
There has also been no shortage of candidates, particularly for this year’s 18th National Congress. It was the first time that nominees for the 2,270 party delegates had been assessed, with candidates continuing to outnumber the available slots.
At this latest National Congress, both a new CC and a new Central Commission for Discipline Inspection were elected. The Communist Party’s Constitution is also being amended, with the main themes being intra-party democracy and fighting corruption.
The governing party’s Standing Committee has also sought the views of other political parties in China on the draft report for the 18th National Congress. President Hu Jintao, as party General Secretary, pledged to strengthen cooperation with the other parties.
Beijing has thus become a magnet for journalists during the week more than for previous National Congresses. More than 1,000 international journalists gained accreditation, with another 400 from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.
If more of Beijing’s proceedings were in English, they would enjoy wider global coverage. That day may soon come as China’s prospect grows.
In 1997, China granted the Carter Center in the US the role of observing village-level elections around the country. The next level of governance, the provincial level, has also experimented with elections for the general public, with only the national level still to do so.
Since 2002, the Carter Center has also played a significant part in voter education in China, on issues like improved governance and political reform. In both rural and urban areas, the Carter Center works with China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs and with NGOs
Meanwhile during the week’s 18th National Congress in Beijing, a multitude of issues surfaced for the government to consider. Among these are challenges from growing income disparities, corruption, inadequate market access for local businesses, environmental degradation and moral decay from public indifference to private suffering.
As elsewhere, the responsibility of government is to ensure fulfilment of public welfare without neglecting private business needs. Whereas in the US critics of the government accuse Washington of adopting socialist policies, critics of Beijing accuse the government of abandoning them.
The world’s two largest economies are often compared to see how different they are, while neglecting how much they are similar and how exactly they actually differ. Economically they have become so interdependent within a single global system as to become mutually complementary.
By implication, they are also not as different politically as is so often presumed. While classical ideologists may persist, the reality is that the political business of government has largely become managing national economies competently in a single globalised world.
Kenichi Ohmae is wrong; countries are in no danger of being replaced by corporations in the present or the foreseeable future, no matter how much some corporate budgets dwarf some national incomes. Rather, countries will remain unitary entities, albeit essentially as political economies increasingly governed by national economic needs and supranational economic parameters.
A symptom of this is how economic ideologies have replaced political ideologies between the world’s leading major powers. The Washington Consensus of supposedly antagonistic public and private sectors is under serious challenge by the Beijing Consensus of a harmonious complementary relationship between state and industry.
The latter model in Asia originated in Japan, and was soon adopted by the Newly Industrialising Economies (NIEs) of Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore. Now China is the main player of this game, with its size of play earning it the “Beijing Consensus” as the name of the game.
But some of it had already been seen before in Europe, particularly Germany. It had also been evident in the US itself, in a different time and under a different name.
All of which serves to confirm the unitary nature of the global economy, with time, circumstance and level of development being the real differentials.
BEHIND THE HEADLINES By BUNN NAGARA
America's problem: Money politics seldom supports reforms
America's problem: Money politics seldom supports reforms