WASHINGTON -- As Election Day approaches, it's useful to look at the murky political transition taking place this month in China. It's a reminder of the benefits of America's sometimes chaotic democracy.
The Chinese are facing a once-in-a-decade political shift as President Hu Jintao prepares to transfer power to Xi Jinping, his long-designated successor. But beneath this pre-cooked surface, many key issues are still bubbling, with a decisive Communist Party congress scheduled to start Nov. 8.
Imagine if the United States were deciding on Tuesday not just on a president and members of Congress -- but on the size and scope of the executive branch, oversight of the military, and new constitutional rules. China's leaders are still thought to be haggling over all these issues on the eve of the party congress, and behind a curtain of secrecy that feeds rumors and gossip.
The coming political transition will replace most members of the country's two key executive bodies -- the standing committee of the party's Politburo and the Central Military Commission. What's amazing is how little even the best informed U.S. experts know about how these personnel decisions will be made.
Given China's lack of transparency, this arcane subject is left mostly to China-watchers in and out of government. But the political stakes this month in Beijing may be as important for the world as those in the U.S. election. Here are some of the big "ifs" that experts are following:
-- How big will the Politburo's standing committee be? The rumor is that membership will be reduced from nine to seven -- and that the two portfolios to be removed are propaganda and law enforcement. "The decision to eliminate those two positions and reduce the membership from nine to seven is closely linked to political reform," argues Cheng Li, a leading China scholar at the Brookings Institution.
China will remain a police state, even if propaganda and law enforcement are less visible in the Politburo. And it may be a more decisive dictatorship, with a streamlined group that can reach consensus more easily on thorny topics. But the pressures for change are building. And this will be a group of new faces -- with five or seven new members, depending on its size.
-- Will the retiring president, Hu, keep his seat on the Central Military Commission? His predecessor, Jiang Zemin, kept his hand in military matters in the same way, and Hu may want this token of status and patronage, too -- modestly reducing the power of the incoming president, Xi. But the story here is also of change. A large majority of the 12 members of the military commission are likely to be new. This represents a big turnover for a Chinese military that has been increasingly assertive on such issues as the South China Sea.
-- Will the problems of corruption and patronage that exploded in the Bo Xilai scandal last February be manageable. So far, the Chinese have done a good job of containing the fallout from the purge of Bo, the charismatic former Chongqing party chief. But Li at the Brookings Institution sees a deep factional split between Hu (whose followers have roots in the Communist Youth League) and Jiang (whose elite supporters are often described as "princelings"). Jiang's cosmopolitan supporters are said to favor continued rapid development, while the Hu group stresses party organization and domestic security to check the unrest that accompanies fast growth.
Xi's challenge will be to bridge this gap, and so far he seems to be pretty deft. He's certainly a princeling himself (his father was one of Mao Zedong's close advisers) but he has also built bridges to the Hu camp.
-- Will the party consider changes in its constitution, perhaps asserting that the party is subordinate to the state? Li predicts there may be edicts that "the party should be under the law rather than above the law."
The volatility beneath the placid surface of Chinese politics was evident in recent exposes about the fabulous wealth party leaders have accumulated: Bloomberg News reported in June that Xi's extended family has nearly $1 billion in assets; last month, The New York Times documented that the family of Wen Jiabao, the outgoing prime minister, secretly owns assets of $2.7 billion. Similar tales could surely be told about most of the top leaders.
Somehow, over the next two weeks, this corrupt, secretive leadership will have to chart the course of the world's second biggest economy. Their challenge makes electoral democracy seem easy, by comparison.
David Ignatius' email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group