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An even bigger "election" than the one in the USA

With all the media coverage and hype surrounding the US presidential election one might be forgiven for overlooking the "election" at the top of the Chinese Communist Party Congress about to get underway.

It is also worth putting things into context, as this piece on The Global Mail does....

"Anyone feeling burned out by the hyperbole, partisanship and mass fervour of the presidential election that just passed in the United States might consider taking a trip to Beijing right now.

Starting Thursday, the Chinese Communist Party will kick off its 18th Congress, a week-long meeting that officially picks the next generation of China’s leaders, likely to be headed by the longtime heir-apparent, Xi Jinping. Another senior party official, Li Keqiang, is set to become the country’s number two. It’s a curious mix of spectacle and non-event, carried out behind a wall of secrecy, security and pomp. Everything has already been decided behind the scenes, before the Congress. Unless, of course, there has been some monumental, unforseeable cock-up.

The nine current members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo during the 17th Party Congress in 2007.

The thing is that, despite the predetermined nature of the event, people are anxious. The Party has been undermined by recent public scandals, the economy is not as stellar as it once was, and the gap between rulers and ruled is widening. There has been plenty of speculation about the Communist Party’s internal intrigues and factional rivalries – machinations the outside world sees only murkily, if at all.

So let’s take the lack of debates, campaign rallies and attack ads as an opportunity. Let’s do something we seldom do when countries hold pesky democratic elections. Let’s look at the big picture.

Here are a few numbers that point to the machinery underpinning politics in China, a country that is richer, more powerful and more on edge than the last time it rotated its rulers.

1.3 billion 
The population of China. This is an obvious one, but let it just sink in for a moment.

The number of parties that matter in China. That’s the Chinese Communist Party, which has ruled since 1949. There are other small, officially sanctioned “democratic parties”, but we can ignore them, as that’s what everyone else does.

The thing about China is that it belongs to the Party. The government and its institutions follow the dictates of party officials, as does the state media. China has laws, but the law always bends to the will of the Party.

This doesn’t mean that the Party is monolithic. It’s riven by divisions between factions and interest groups, and local officials get away with all sorts of shenanigans when Beijing isn’t watching. But the point is that the Party is the only game in town.

The number of roles Xi will likely be taking on as head honcho. You’ll likely see plenty of reports that refer to Xi as China’s incoming president. This is true – though he won’t become president until next year – but it’s also the least important of the multiple roles that he’ll be taking. Most substantial is the position he’ll accept at this congress, that of General Secretary of the Communist Party. The other, crucial title of Chairman of the Central Military Commission is widely expected to go to Xi, though it remains uncertain whether China’s current supremo, Hu Jintao, will cede the role.

7, maybe  
The number of seats likely to be appointed in the next Standing Committee of the Politburo, the Party’s highest decision-making body. The Standing Committee is the group of men (and possibly one woman this time) that steers China’s direction from the top, making its decisions by consensus. The current committee has nine members, but party leaders have reportedly decided to shrink it, to cut down on the clashes between different factions and interest groups, and so smooth out decision-making.

USD7.3 trillion 
China’s annual gross domestic product, the second-largest in the world. The economy grew 7.4 per cent (over the year before) in the July-to-September quarter this year – fast by most world standards, but much slower than China has seen in recent years. In 2002, when the Communist Party last changed its leadership, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) was USD1.45 trillion.

0.438, or something like that
 China’s Gini coefficient — that is, the measure of inequality in the country, where a number closer to 1 is more unequal, a number closer to 0 is more equal — according to one study of its society in 2010. Other sources put it higher. (The CIA puts it at 0.48 for 2009, the World Bank says it was 0.425 in 2005.) Either way, China has greater inequality than the US, and most commentators agree China is becoming more unequal, and rubbing tempers raw along the way. The income gap between urban and rural residents, though decreasing by some estimates, remains high; one think tank recently found city dwellers earn 5.2 times more than their rural cousins.

 The number of homing pigeons and balloons allowed in the skies above Beijing during the party congress. State security officials have stepped up their presence across the city, placing dissidents under arrest or driving them out of town, and instituting a raft of restrictions to choke the possibility of dissent during the meeting.

The number of top-level Communist Party officials who will lose their position in the wake of scandals this year. Bo Xilai, former party chief of Chongqing, was a rising star and widely considered a sure thing for the Standing Committee of the Politburo. That was before he and his wife, Gu Kailai, fell from grace in a well-publicised corruption and murder scandal involving the death of British businessman (and, perhaps, spy) Neil Heywood, and the flight of Bo’s police chief, Wang Lijun, to a US consulate. Gu has already been convicted of the murder, while Bo awaits trial on charges including abuse of power and bribery."

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