What the Eye Doesn’t See

The British sense of the absurd summed up the watershed week that wasn't. The BBC marvelled at the multiple ironies of covering the two most important events in world politics over 48 hours. The US election was transparent, the observer was familiar with all the issues involved but could not possibly know who would win office. In the change of guard in progress in Beijing, the process is so opaque that we don't even know how many agents are involved — maybe half a dozen party bosses. It is known in advance that Xi Jingping will take over from Hu Jintao, but absolutely nothing is known about his agenda.

On the basis of his proximity to the military and state-run industry, Al Jazeera surmised that Xi is conservative. But it cannot claim to know what 'conservative' might mean in the China that he will rule over. Just as no one knows what the 'reform' that Xi will preside over might entail. This air of mystery, which contrasts rather well with the depressing certainties that Obama faces, makes the world's second most important election more interesting than the first.

By last week, it was clear that the US election would not be the epic struggle that the media had billed it as. Obama's promise of change in the last election had bottomed out into the trough of continuity — the slough of American despond, if you will. Who was in the Oval Office made very little difference internationally. This week, hair-thin differences in voting preference made it clear that it did not matter domestically either. And the media, having made due obeisance to the 'fiscal cliff' which faces the US, decided to cut its losses and invest in the China story, which will run until March next year, when the process begun by the 18th party congress ends with sweeping changes in the leadership.

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