Exactly a week before the momentous top  leadership change in China  on November 8,  wherein President Hu Jintao is expected to ceremonially pass the  mantle to his  successor Xi Jinping,   I had occasion to be in Beijing and  the contrast with another major leadership change in distant USA  (November 6 ) was striking.

Almost all  of my Chinese interlocutors  refused to be drawn into any meaningful discussion about the  significance of the Hu-Xi transition.  My repeated attempts to enter into a dialogue about  reviewing the ten years of the Hu Jintao – Wen Jiabao  era was in vain. The local media was  more focused on the    hurricane Sandy disaster that had struck the east coast of the USA – and the manner in which New York city was unable to cope due to the poor infrastructure.

The only persons who were willing to speak were some of the foreign residents in Beijing – mainly from the media and a few  professional  expats who were working in the Chinese capital. The odd Chinese response was very guarded and elliptical and only went to the extent of conceding that the Party Congress when it convened on  Thursday would formally announce the succession. 

Vice-President Xi Jinping is  slated  to replace  President Hu Jintao as the party's general secretary  and assume office as  China’s  President early next year. The current  Vice-Premier Li Keqiang will   replace Wen Jiabao as  the Prime Minister. This is common knowledge and  any query about  the more significant change regarding the leadership of the powerful Central Military Commission  (CMC)  – meaning would  Xi Jinping assume that role also  and lead both the Party and the military – was  deflected.

It was pointed out that in 2002, when Jiang Zemin handed over the reins to Hu Jintao, he retained the position of Chairman of the CMC  for two years and that this could well be the pattern. But the sense of uncertainty and  anxiety though unstated was palpable and  it was almost as if the mood in Beijing was ‘let us keep our fingers crossed till Thursday when  the transition takes  place  and everything   officially announced  - and then we can speak.’
So be it – for one thing that even a short visit to Beijing reveals is the degree to which discourse – be it in the public domain or in private is controlled and regulated  by the powers that be.  For instance,  while local print media and TV outlets are given certain cues by the  government, even cyber-space has been strictly controlled.  The cyber  links to news from outside of China was restricted and no reference to the Party Congress or the Hu Jintao era  was possible.  As in the run up to the 2008 Olympics, social media like Facebook and its Chinese equivalent  were blocked.

The contestation for the top leadership slots – both in relation to the  Communist Party and the military  (PLA)  is  opaque but intense and has been a feature of  such transition from the Mao era to the present times.  For instance, as noted  earlier, the Bo Xilai  scandal and that relating to PM Wen Jiabao  have been perceived in this light. In the current  transition, it is averred that while Hu Jintao would have personally preferred to pass the baton to his protégé  Li Keqiang -  he was unable to do so and had to accept the consensus choice of Xi Jinping.

The supreme ruler  of China  – the Emperor in days bygone,  to the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in the post 1949 era beginning with Mao Zedong -  almost always reached the top by either ensuring  compliance through might  or soliciting  support through  extending patronage and pelf  to the critical  clans or  factions that represented the ruling pyramid.  In the long trajectory from the ancient Zhou  dynastic  period  (1050 BC) across three millennia to Mao – it was important to convey to the populace and the critical elite constituency  that the ruler had a divine mandate – or Heavens Command (tian  ming).

Official China in the 21st century is determinedly   communist and  rejects any suggestion of  invoking the celestial  but  socio-cultural rhythms even  when devoid of  visible religiosity are deeply embedded and  the leader to be anointed -  Xi Jinping  - will be seeking such a mandate. 

As a ‘princeling’ – meaning one who has the advantage of dynasty ,  Xi will be assuming control of China at a crucial  juncture both domestically and  externally.  While the Chinese prosperity  and power index improved  in an impressive way during the Hu Jintao decade ( GDP , per capita  ad military capability increased) and the 2008 Olympics were a huge feather in the cap – some disturbing cracks have appeared in the Chinese visage. 

Domestic discontent has  become more pronounced – due to  the rising  socio-economic disparity between the small minority of the affluent and the privileged few connected to the ruling elite,  as opposed to the teeming millions who live in the countryside and  the less developed regions of China.  With the global economic downturn, manufacturing and exports have slowed down and the average Chinese worker is either grossly underpaid or  without a job. On the periphery, Tibet and Xinjiang continue to simmer.

In the last phase of the Hu years,  Beijing imprudently  chose to flex its military muscle within the region – with the ASEAN states  and in East Asia  against  Japan and South Korea and thus the ‘rise’ of  China is now seen with deep apprehension. The relationship with the USA remains tense and during my  Beijing visit, the  US Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s reference to China as a ‘cheater’  and currency manipulator was met with anger and resentment. 

Harmony is central to the Chinese vision of the cosmos and the  material  world and remains the  elusive Holy Grail for every leadership. President designate Xi Jinping will be striving for this objective in his succession and in dealing with his peers in the politburo, as also  for governing (ruling ?)  his  one billion plus  citizens.  The world  outside (USA, Japan, India amongst others )  will be looking for the same harmonious texture in its relations with the new  Xi – Li  team in Beijing.