PhillyDeals: Is China power struggle really that scary?

Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin (right) seated next to lame-duck leader Hu Jintao for this week's committee changes.
Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin (right) seated next to lame-duck leader Hu Jintao for this week's committee changes. (NG HAN GUAN / AP)
Posted: November 11, 2012

While our political leaders have been beating each other's brains out, so have China's. Communist Party leaders will name a seven- man ruling committee Thursday.

Since China is our main world- power rival and top overseas trading partner - a growing focus for Cigna International, DuPont Co., Dow Chemical, General Motors, Google, TE Connectivity, and other big U.S. companies; a big market for American coal, meat, and grain; and the place our smartphones are made by regimented workers whose low wages are finally rising - you'd think the results mattered to Americans.

But President Obama and Mitt Romney had little to say about China, its promise and threat, beyond bashing each other over runaway factories and currency manipulation in online ads sent to blue-collar Midwestern voters.

Some accounts of the China power struggle are nuclear-war scary. "Conservatives appear poised to dominate, [as] reform-minded" leaders have been bypassed, wrote Shi Jiangtao in the South China Morning Post, describing how retired party chief Jiang Zemin, 86, is outman- euvering lame-duck leader Hu Jintao to put his elderly proteges in power.

"The forces of reaction and economic folly threaten to prevail in China," warned the British newspaper the Telegraph, adding that the gang gaining power wants to put the United States "in an impossible position" by seizing islands and oil zones from U.S. allies in Japan and Taiwan and forcing America toward an abrupt war.

If it's that bad, shouldn't Romney and Obama have been talking about this?

Maybe it's not. "Jiang Zemin was a reformer, in his time," points out Professor Marshall Meyer, who follows China trade and industry at the Wharton School. Those Communists cut out of power include the "most-retrograde" antireformers.

Yes, Meyer said, "there is a lot of unrest in China, more than is reported." Yes, he believes, "the leadership is still very much up

in the air."

China suffers suffocating corruption, dangerous food, crushing unpaid loans, and too many college grads collecting trash. And that's why a shooting war looks less likely: "For all the tension that exists, a U.S. military response would completely upset the transition," Meyer told me.

"I'm a little less alarmist than some of the newspaper reports," agreed Avery Goldstein, a scholar of China politics at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Rising to the Challenge and other works on China foreign policy. (He says reporters at the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal do a good job putting China news in context.)

"I don't agree they are moving back to the state-planned economy," Goldstein told me. "They are committed to moving toward a more market-driven economy, except a few strategic sectors they want state-owned."

Things could still fall out of control, fast, fatally. A China-U.S. war, Goldstein said, "is not something the leadership on either side wants." But neither side can "afford to look soft, economically or militarily, either," he adds.

Be careful what you wish for: A democratic China government could be swayed by nationalist passions that have been fed by decades of Communist education. That could make confrontation with the United States more likely.

Backfire

In their push to attract pro-Israel votes and dollars, Republicans made inroads this year, drawing many millions in aid from global gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson and other Israel backers, and winning a boost in the Jewish Republican vote to about 30 percent, from 22 percent four years ago.

But Romney still lost - and hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who backed the Republican against Obama, now looks isolated, writes Noga Tarnopolsky, from Jerusalem, in the Global Post.

"After what Netanyahu has done in the past few months, we have to ask whether the prime minister has a friend in the White House. I'm not sure," she quoted ex-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in remarks to American Jewish leaders at a meeting last week.

The complex U.S. Jewish relationship with Israel recalls a long tradition of U.S. immigrant and religious communities swaying politicians' policies toward their home countries.

Jews are 2 percent of the U.S. population; not all agree with Netanyahu's tough stand against the Palestinians, though there are evangelical Christians and other non-Jews who do.

But for Republicans, gaining a bigger slice of the pro-Israel vote, and of pro-Israel campaign contributions, failed to balance the Democrats' dominance among larger, growing voter groups - African Americans, Latinos, Asians.

What's the lesson? "While Israel may have been front and center in the campaign, it may not be front and center in Obama's policy," ex-U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk told Israel's Army Radio. "I think he's going to be focused on other parts of the world where he can achieve more."


Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194 or JoeD@phillynews.com,

or follow on Twitter @PhillyJoeD.

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