Two days after Americans voted, a very different political process will get under way in China. The result is known, and it has been for five years: Xi Jinping, 59, a career apparatchik, will be installed as general secretary of the Communist Party, the country’s most powerful position, while Li Keqiang will be “elected” as his deputy. How or why the two men were chosen is unknown outside the highest echelons of the Chinese leadership; their political inclinations and plans for China are also a matter of guesswork. It’s not clear who will serve with them in the party’s Standing Committee, which makes decisions by consensus, or even how many members the committee will have.
What is clear is that the political system the leaders will inherit is under growing pressure. Many within the Communist Party’s elite — not to mention the country’s rapidly growing middle class — consider the status quo unsustainable. China’s reformers don’t expect the country to become a democracy overnight. But the new leaders finally could begin to modernize the system.
They could allow independent social groups and nongovernmental organizations at the local level and, eventually, contested elections for local assemblies. Either way, the next decade in China will be more turbulent and unpredictable than the last.
Even though he won Tuesday’s election, President Obama will have little control over China’s course; but he will have an opportunity to nudge Mr. Xi in the direction of democratic change.