China watches US democracy avidly, but without envy

Sebastien Blanc
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World's two biggest economies, the US and China, choose their next leaders in early November

This file photo shows US President Barack Obama (L) greeting Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney following the third and final presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, October 22

The world's two biggest economies choose their next leaders in early November, an accident of timing that lays bare the vivid contrast between China's opaque communist state and America's riotous democracy.

The rhythm of the presidential election in the United States has been set by three televised debates watched by tens of millions of voters, with campaigning carried out online as well as at boisterous rallies that draw thousands.

On the other side of the Pacific the power games are under way behind closed doors, as Communist Party leaders jostle for positions ahead of the regime's once-in-a-decade leadership change starting on November 8 at a special congress.

The victor of the November 6 contest between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney is too close to call, but it is almost certain the new Chinese president will be Xi Jinping, currently vice president in the one-party state.

Speaking to AFP at a university campus in Beijing, Chinese students from diverse backgrounds said they were following closely the change in Washington, which was more lively and entertaining than the transition at home.

State television relays events on the US campaign trail, while websites such as ifeng provided live streaming of the debates and social media networks buzz with discussion of the process and perceived China-bashing by the candidates.

But many of the students' comments made clear they had no desire to import Western-style democracy to China immediately.

"Copying in a mechanical way American democracy would cause a lot of problems in China, even if we need to go that way in order to make progress here," said 24-year-old Zheng Kailun, a philosophy student.

Others admired how the US candidates faced off in the televised debates and even poked fun at each other at a gala dinner last week in New York.

"Obama is a great performer in front of the public, he's got a magnetic personality," said Tu Zongchi, a student of international relations.

But he also said he thought the American electoral system was "not applicable for China at the moment".

One issue with particular resonance in both countries is the personal finances of the candidates for high office.

Obama has sought to highlight Romney's enormous personal wealth and investments in China. The Republican released some of his tax returns -- something unimaginable in China where leaders' lives are meant to stay private.

Last week, a New York Times investigation into investments said to total $2.7 billion by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's family was quickly blacked out by official censors.

Zhang Shuo, a student of mechanical engineering who says he is avidly following the US election, said China's system "largely meets our national needs".

¨Perhaps in 30 to 50 years we will also reach the same level of democracy (as the US). It's an evolution," he said.

The students' views that political reform will evolve slowly chime with most analysts' and are in sharp relief to the clamour for democracy that filled the air of Beijing in mid-1989.

Then, hundreds if not thousands of students were gunned down around Tiananmen Square after weeks of protests. Now, a new generation has come of age seeing the fruits of rapid economic growth.

China's leadership craves stability above all as a means to continue the rise, which has made the country a global diplomatic force and helped finance a military upgrade enabling Beijing to project its power.

The growing might of the Middle Kingdom is a source of friction in the Pacific, where China's ambitions clash with Washington's desire to retain its role as the region's pre-eminent force.

On several occasions China has stressed its desire for stable US ties, and warned that it must not be made a scapegoat for America's economic problems, as both candidates assail the country on the campaign trail.

A victory for Romney could have an immediate impact on relations with the Republican candidate vowing to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in the White House.

The move, avoided by the administrations of both Obama and former president George W. Bush, would enable the United States to impose harsh retaliatory penalties on Chinese goods and has led some analysts to warn of a trade war.

Chinese media have urged readers to take such declarations with a pinch of salt.

"Willing or not, Democratic or Republican, the next US president shall have to tone down his get-tough-on-China rhetoric made along the campaign trail," state news agency Xinhua said last week.