Published November 05. 2012 4:00AM
The heads of world governments will be watching closely this week to see what happens next as one of the most influential nations on Earth goes through the process of choosing its leader.
No, we're not talking about Tuesday's election to choose the president of the United States and the Congress he will have to work with. What we refer to is the opening Thursday of the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.
Barring a shocking surprise, something the party's leadership is always careful to avoid, Xi Jinping, 59, the vice president and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, will be named general secretary of the Politburo before the congress ends in about a week. Then in March the annual meeting of China's puppet parliament will elect Mr. Xi as the new president, succeeding Hu Jintao, completing the party's once a decade change in leadership.
And while Americans at least have a good idea about what the candidates vying for president of their country say they will do, any predictions of where Mr. Xi may take China are pure speculation.
Of course, who ever winds up winning the U.S. presidential election will have great interest in China's future. It is the most populace nation on Earth and the closest now found to a super power that can rival the United States. It is also the United States' second largest trading partner after Canada, and with the rapid rise of its middle class a potentially massive market for U.S. corporations. China holds the notes on about $1.1 trillion of the $16 trillion U.S. debt, the largest single foreign lender.
There are potential flashpoints. China's intent to be the dominant power in the Asia Pacific clashes with the United States' policy of being the dominant global sea power, and the two nation's have frequently quarreled over trade policy.
While the Obama administration's relationship with China has hardly been rosy - arguing over Tibet, Internet freedom, exchange rate manipulation by China and jurisdiction of the South China Sea - Mitt Romney's campaign chest thumping raises the question whether under his administration the relationship would move from friends who disagree to enemies.
At various points Mr. Romney has accused China of "misappropriating western technology, blocking access to its market, and manipulating its currency" and vows to "label China … a currency manipulator" and says he "will go after (it) for stealing our intellectual property."
In reality, the two nations have to figure out how to get along at some level and both have serious domestic challenges to deal with.
In China Mr. Xi must address the restive lower- and middle-classes who are growing less satisfied with economic progress alone as a measure of advancement and seek greater levels of freedom and self determination. One-party rule and the lack of a free press to question authority has led to rampant corruption. The rise of the Internet and social media is making it increasingly difficult for the ruling party to control information and block all dissent. A slowing economy adds to the discontent.
A much discussed, leaked secret report from a party economist warns of a possible "chain reaction that results in social turmoil or violent revolution." The report's solutions are sobering, ranging from steps toward democracy to tougher crackdowns on dissidents.
Mr. Xi probably has time and an account of good will to draw on. Economic reforms launched in 1992 to allow free enterprise and private ownership resulted in spectacular growth, the economy quadrupling over the past decade, providing a quality of life many Chinese never anticipated. And 95 percent of Chinese now have some form of health coverage, up from 15 percent in 2000.
But the new leader would be wise to ease censorship, allow a free press, and gradually introduce democratic reforms, starting at the local level, offering a pressure relief valve before demand for change suddenly explodes.
Meanwhile, whichever administration occupies the White House must recognize the nuances of this important relationship, and not let rhetoric or rash actions send it in the wrong direction.