A more important, historically speaking, presidential election than America’s concluded last week … where Xi Jinping was entrusted with the leadership of China. The selection followed a process viewed as hermetic by us western barbarians. Yet there is an organic logic to it if viewed as part of a slow-motion, dramatic, transformation. This transformation has important implications for the United States, for China, and for the world.
The USA, counting from the Declaration of Independence, is only 236 years old. China has 6,000 years of continuous, historical, political culture. It has seen the rise and fall of many civilizations, most of them nearly forgotten. China has endured and thinks on a very different timeline than our own. 236 years is a mere blip. Our durability, presumably, is seen by the nation that saw Rome rise and fall as somewhat speculative. Americans think in cycles of unfathomable brevity — quarterly earnings reports, two-year Congressional cycles, four-year administrations…
China thinks in epochs. To achieve even a rudimentary understanding of what is happening in China requires a longer perspective than most Americans are used to employing. We are in the early stages of the Mao Dynasty. It is visibly evolving toward liberal republican governance. Ten years, rather than life, tenure for its leaders is a major step.
A mark of progress is the immediate relinquishment of the role of commander-in-chief of the armed forces by outgoing leader Hu Jintao (in contrast to his predecessor, Jiang Zemin) and the investment of these powers in Xi. As A. Greer Meisels noted in “Power Transitions with Chinese Characteristics” in The National Interest, “…with this move, Hu Jintao has guaranteed that this was the first clean transfer of power the CCP has seen in two decades. This is no small feat.” This is an astute observation … and an understatement.
Hu’s act of remarkable humility bears a striking similarity to that of George Washington’s stepping down, after two terms, from a presidency he could have held for life. It may be seen, in retrospect, as one of the most important political moments in modern Chinese — and world — history. Voluntarily relinquishing power is a decisive move away from the Dynastic and toward humanitarian republican principles. This act distinguishes Hu as a great man.