After an eventful year, China has cleared the decks for a wholesale change of leadership amid a particularly challenging set of circumstances.
Turbo-powered growth has left the last major state that a communist party rules facing a string of political, economic and social questions. The five-yearly party congress on November 8, which will appoint the new leaders to steer the country through the rest of this decade, is therefore as important in its way as the United States presidential poll two days earlier.
Whatever the faults of the US system, the contrast between the competitive election across the Pacific, held after months of open policy discussion, and the closed-door transition of power in China is striking. For all the praise from foreign commentators about the way China works, that contrast indicates a significant weakness in the system that tries to guide the world's second-largest economy on a path of "scientific socialism".
It has been 63 years since Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic and the market-led economic reforms that his successor, Deng Xiaoping, launched at the end of the 1970s have changed China and the world beyond all measure. But the basic power equation has not budged, confronting those in charge with the task of containing a society that prefers materialism to Marxism or Confucianism.
In many ways this is healthy. The traditional ruling method, stretching back to the first emperor in 221BC, was patriarchal and despotic and the communists picked it up enthusiastically. But it sits on top of a country in which individuals enjoy a far greater degree of liberty, behaviour patterns are shifting fast, respect for authority is not what it was and technology – especially in the form of social media – has wrought a revolution.
But the leadership, outgoing and incoming, acts as if nothing has changed. In the Leninist pecking order, the party ranks above the government and the real decisions are made in its politburo, which operates in the strictest secrecy. There is no open policy discussion. Control is everything. The institutions of civil society are absorbed into the official apparatus. Dissent is equated to subversion. Judges swear an oath of loyalty not to China or to the legal system, but to the communist movement. The party's disciplinary commission can pick anybody up at will without charge and hold them for interrogation in a secret location.
Occasionally, a corner of the curtain is lifted, as in the party's expulsion last week of the one-time rising star Bo Xilai, the former boss of the mega-municipality of Chongqing with its 32-million inhabitants. He was accused of "grave violations of party discipline", "massive bribery", "improper sexual relations with multiple women" and "errors and culpability" in the cases of former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun and Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, who was convicted last month of the murder of the Brit Neil Heywood.
Those charges may or may not be justified, but the fundamental reason for Bo's fall was the fear his ambition and ruthlessness aroused among his peers in the leadership as he sought to join the supreme body that makes decisions – the politburo standing committee. For the past 10 years under Hu Jintao, China has been run on consensus, a dictatorship without a dictator. That is certainly better than the days when Mao got out of bed in the afternoon and launched some adventurous scheme that brought death to millions. But it does not allow for the likes of Bo, who step out of the opaque central circle and plough their own furrow.
The political defenestration of this champion of Mao-era values and of state control, who backed the use of the law against opponents, is no bad thing. But the way the politburo secretly decided Bo's case after he disappeared following his dismissal from his Chongqing post in March is the antithesis of the rule of law. It was a power play in which the charges were personal, raising the question of how many others act similarly but bow to the rule of the centre and evade censure. There was no debate about the policies Bo pursued – an awkward matter: Hu Jintao and his anointed successor, Xi Jinping, went to the city to sing the praises of the "Chongqing model", but since then photographs of their visits have disappeared from Chinese websites.
Such issues go to the heart of the challenge the People's Republic faces. Its conservative leadership is stuck in a system of opaque, top-down rule. Like the emperors before them, the leaders fear that change may bring down the whole edifice. But if the party has no alternative, its model is reaching its limits.
Deng made the economy the driver of national revival and the party's recovery from the implosion of the Cultural Revolution, but expansion is slowing down, shot through with inefficiency and excess capacity and paying the price for the failure to address crucial issues such as land ownership, labour movement, capital markets and water and energy supply. The party claims to stand for the people, but there are an estimated 150 000 popular protests a year. The lack of trust people feel covers everything from food safety standards to official pronouncements.
"Only believe something when the government denies it," a saying goes. Corruption and yawning disparities of wealth fuel resentment. The environment is a mess and the demographics are heading the wrong way.
Still, for most of its people, this is the best time to live in China during the modern era. The material and social strides made in the past few decades are indisputable, but they have brought the need for a new approach and time is running out. If the new leadership cannot forge that, China's future will be more uncertain than its recent past. – © Guardian News & Media 2012
Jonathan Fenby is author of Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today (Overlook Press)