About 130 million people voted in the recent US elections. In contrast, just 2,270 delegates to the Chinese Communist Party Congress met to choose the new leadership of the world’s most populous country.
While the Chinese leaders met in Beijing, Northern Ireland’s leaders were heading to Shanghai to front an InvestNI trade mission. The First and deputy First Ministers had hoped to meet Chinese government representatives on this trip, but with the capital in security lockdown, they face the prospect of a return trip early in 2013.
So what sort of leadership can they expect to meet next year? What will the changing of the guard mean for China and the world?
Domestically, real progress has been made in reducing poverty in China, but huge challenges remain and the relentless drive towards economic growth is having significant negative repercussions for many ordinary Chinese, resulting in daily protests across the vast country.
It is clear that the leadership will continue to be focused on economic development, yet if the country is to gain the stability it needs, the government must reconcile its drive for growth with a respect for rights.
One emerging source of popular discontent in China has been the issue of forced evictions to make way for new developments. Amnesty International recently released a report which documents in depressing detail the lawlessness of the forced evictions of ordinary Chinese from their homes or farmland, without consultation, compensation or suitable alternative accommodation.
Current Premier Wen Jiabao has acknowledged the problems, but other officials have defended abuses in the eviction process as the necessary price of modernisation.
Freedom of expression is promised in the Chinese constitution. And yet, citizens are denied this right time and again. Daily across China, there are hundreds of protests demanding basic rights and against official corruption and lawlessness. But those who speak out can be severely punished.
The authorities continue to bring all religious practice under state control, including the appointment of religious leaders and the registration of religious groups. People practicing religions banned or that are not sanctioned by the state, risk harassment, detention, imprisonment or even violence.
Banned religious groups include underground Protestant house churches and Catholics who accept the authority of the Holy See. Around forty Catholic bishops remain unaccounted for, and are presumed to be held by the authorities.
Meanwhile China continues to use the death penalty extensively, with thousands being executed after unfair trials. In 2011, more people were executed in China than the rest of the world put together, although statistics on death sentences and executions remain a State secret.
Internationally, China is now a leading player on the global stage and the country’s economic influence is undeniable. But with global power comes responsibility, at the UN Security Council and elsewhere.
Instead, China has often used its clout to ensure as little debate as possible about serious human rights violations committed around the world.
For instance, Beijing has talked of being “deeply saddened” by the death toll in Syria, now estimated at more than 30,000. But China played a key role in ensuring that the UN Security Council failed to act to prevent the nightmare that civilians are living through in Syria today.
Now sadly, as a new generation of leaders prepares to take power in China, we are witnessing the same old patterns of repression, with a wave of detentions marking the run-up to the Party Congress.
Yet, hope lies with the growing number of people within China demanding change. Over the coming decade the new leaders ignore such calls at their peril.
If our Ministers go back next year, they can bring a message from Northern Ireland that respect for human rights is crucial to successful transition and would be a sign of strength, not weakness, from the new leadership.
Published today in the Belfast Telegraph.