THE past fortnight has seen a glorious exercise in political contrasts: a grand but rather ageing democracy going through a tried and tested democratic ritual, and the world’s new superpower embarking on a strange process of changing the leadership guard in which the populace is only dimly recognised, never mind consulted. The contrast between the US election and the 18th Communist Party Conference is fabulously intensified by the economic background.

In China, outgoing President Hu Jintao has presided over a decade in which China has gone from being the world’s sixth-largest economy to its second largest, it has more than quadrupled its gross domestic product (GDP), living standards have risen drastically, and its share of global GDP had increased from 7% to 15%. By contrast, the US has trodden water economically in absolute terms over the past decade, but its share of global GDP has declined from 23% to 19%.

When newly elected President Barack Obama says in his victory speech that the best years for the greatest nation on earth lie ahead, the world nods sagely in disagreement: everybody understands the politics of the statement, but nobody believes it. By the time Obama leaves office, these two countries will be equal global economic players.

Behind this magnificent global drama lies a question of existential grandness: are our societies better run by careless, instinctive majorities or by careful, considered experts ? It is the battle of the voice from above versus the voice from below.

The question is so fundamental, it reflects in South Africa’s politics too. Half of South Africa’s Cabinet believe the citizenry would all be better off if they would just shut up and listen. They hanker for the Chinese Communist Party’s power and influence, and also for its "scientific" economic method.

It’s easy to ridicule the gyrations that Chinese politicians go through to harmonise the Marxist-Maoist philosophical heritage with the quasi-capitalist state the Chinese government has put in place. The Financial Times notes, for example, that Hu announced at the beginning of the congress that his most important achievement, beyond even greater wealth for the Chinese people, is a kind of personal philosophy called the "Scientific Outlook on Development", which is about to be elevated into the party constitution.

The main aim of the philosophy is social harmony, which has taken on a kind of Brave New World connotation for Chinese dissidents who talk of being "harmonised" whenever they are censored, which is often.

Yet while many in the West are quick — generally speaking, correctly — to point out the flaws and contradictions, I personally am more respectful. Even if you factor in the weaknesses and dangers, it’s impossible to just sweep away the great strides China has taken over the past three decades. They must be doing something right, surely?

I suspect what Hu has tapped into is Chinese traditions that go beyond communism and interpreted them in terms of a Marxist outlook rather than the other way around. He has reached way back into fundamental Chinese self-consciousness; a deep intellectual and pragmatic tradition of action and complicity.

He describes the salient aspects of the "scientific" outlook that no westerner would regard as remotely scientific but as Eastern mythic: "Freeing up the mind, seeking truth from facts, keeping up with the times and being realistic and pragmatic."

It is significant that he has been not only the most successful Chinese leader of the modern era but also the most innocuous and bland: he credits his own addition to the party philosophy not to himself but to the "the crystallisation of the collective wisdom of the Communist Party of China and a powerful theoretical weapon for guiding all the work of the party and country".

This is the surface view of modern China, but everything is, of course, not what it seems. Even after all this growth, the average Chinese person is still only about a quarter as rich as the average Japanese person. On a per capita basis, even in purchasing power parity terms, the average Chinese is no richer than the average Brazilian, and — brace yourself — still quite a bit poorer than the average South African.

China has caught up, no doubt, but as impressive as the past three decades have been, catching up is different from overtaking. Catching up is, surely, the easy part; all it means is that you made up the ground you lost; it doesn’t mean you have actually progressed.

The surface view of the US, by contrast, is not particularly great. Obama’s victory has been welcomed around the world, relieved that a president seems to live by Hu’s contribution to the party lexicon. In foreign policy, he is, after all, the president of seeking truth from facts and of being realistic and pragmatic — it’s a delicious irony.

Yet, US politics is complicated, and as China moves away from dogmatism, the American right seems to be embracing it. I get a sense that many don’t really appreciate the magnitude of the Obama victory. Not only has no US president since Franklin D Roosevelt in 1940 been re-elected before when unemployment was higher than 7.2% (it’s now just over 8% ), but Obama’s approval ratings have been well below the average for first-term presidents.

The Republicans fielded a moderate candidate, with a sterling business career at a time when the US economy was stuttering.

Mitt Romney should have been a shoo-in.

Yet Romney managed to win fewer votes in total than John McCain’s disastrous campaign four years ago when McCain had to fight a charismatic new face on the national stage and simultaneously deal with the dreadful legacy of the Bush era.

As one of my favourite podcast presenters said, Romney lost votes in places a conservative throw-rug would have won them.

The key moment of the campaign for me was when Karl Rove, the renowned Grand Old Party adviser, got involved in an epic live-on-TV battle with the conservative television stations own pollsters. He refused to believe that Michigan had been lost.

In doing so, he inadvertently underlined precisely the central critique of the party: that it is congenitally unable to, as Hu would put it, free the mind, keep up with the times and seek truth from facts.

Obama enters his second term with the wind at his back, but the Republicans maintain control over the House of Representatives, which now includes politicians right on the edge of real-world politics.

The result will be a fractious term at a moment when unity of purpose would be the most sensible course. In a strange corner of his mind, I wonder whether Obama wouldn’t sneakily prefer a little Chinese autocracy for a year or two, even as Chinese citizens yearn for a little US-styled democracy.

Oddly, this is the moment when China and the US ought to be looking to each other’s systems for inspiration — but of course they won’t.

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DESPITE losing the election, there are two economic issues on which Mitt Romney is generally considered by economists to be on the right track: that government s should not choose winners and that the US deficit is unsustainably high.

Most economists, you would guess, would claim Romney is right in principle, but most politicians would claim that he is wrong in politics. Romney famously wrote an opinion article, published in the Wall Street Journal, saying that General Motors should be allowed to disappear into bankruptcy. Barack Obama effectively used taxpayers’ money to save General Motors, thereby increasing his support in the crucial swing-state of Michigan.

On the other side of the world, the Chinese government economically seems to do little else other than choose winners. There are 145,000 state-owned enterprises in China, The New York Times reports, which constitute about 35% of the economy, and, significantly, 45% of corporate profits. And we think we have problems!

Yet, just like Eskom, state-owned enterprises can game the regulatory system to reduce competition and boost their profits. They also benefit from controlled low-interest loans.

The simple reason why economists would argue against government s choosing winners is that they are bad at it, and they usually lose money over the medium term, as South Africa’s chosen "winners", such as South African Airways and Telkom, amply demonstrate.

Yet, it’s obvious that the details are important. The apartheid government was curiously good at choosing winners, and Sasol’s continued existence is an excellent example. Heterodox Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang has challenged this view too, often citing examples from his own country.

It’s possible that although government s should generally stay away from choosing winners, in certain circumstances they can act as something akin to large-scale venture capitalists. But this is only possible if they truly have the expertise and business acumen that venture capitalists have. And that unusual pairing seldom happens.

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OF ALL the acts of craven hypocrisy in the recent past, has there been anything to beat the grotesque insincerity of President Jacob Zuma pretending to honour his predecessor Thabo Mbeki this weekend?

The former president slipped out of town for the occasion, presumably out of a fear that he might throw up during this transparent act of fake veneration. Zuma is now running a bit short of support among Xhosa speakers particularly, so he has chosen the month before the African National Congress’s electoral conference to lay down a little love for the second-most famous Xhosa person in the world, the person whom he ousted, and, of course, who ousted him.

Zuma described Mbeki as a "loyal cadre" and "true patriot" during the "difficult and devastating period of his recall from office", as though this period had nothing to do with him. It’s a pity that Zuma did nothing to stand up for this loyal cadre and patriot at the time.

Politics is about having it both ways, but even for the cynical among us, this is a new low.