Paget deFreitas, Editor - Overseas Publications
BEIJING, China:If Jamaica squeezes the point hard enough, it or more aptly its Olympic stars might claim a little bit of the credit for Xi Jinping's elevation this week as general secretary, the Communist Party of China (CPC) and putative leader of the country.
Xi will formally take over early in the new year from Hu Jintao as China's president at a session of the National People's Assembly, China's parliament, to complete a 10-yearly transition of leadership in this vast country where the economy operates largely along free-market lines, but the CPC maintains its monopoly on power.
Li Kiang will be premier, putting him in charge of the day-to-day operation of the government and making him the No. 2 man in China.
A few years ago, things were not so clear-cut.
Xi, 59, and Li, 57, were both the youngest, and the only ones of the nine members who would be eligible to retain their seats on the Standing Committee of the CPC's political bureau - the leadership inner-circle, from which retirement is mandatory at 68 - at the party's 18th congress this week.
Prior to the 2008 summer Olympics many people thought that Li was the man heading for the top post. But Xi, said to be a charismatic personality, mixes easily with ordinary people, had overall responsibility for preparing China for the games, on which Beijing spent billions and the capital's transformation into a modern metropolis was greatly accelerated.
It might have gone wrong, but Xi, who prior to his Olympic assignment was top official in nearby Zhejiang province, delivered.
Jamaican Usain Bolt's blistering world-record runs in the 100 and 200 metres at the Bird's Nest, the Olympic Stadium, added to the mystique of the Beijing games, helping to make them unforgettable - and possibly helpful to Xi's cause.
recalling bolt's magic
Indeed, more than four years later, memories of Bolt's magic in Beijing was being invoked at China's foreign ministry by Zhang Kunsheng, the assistant foreign minister, who oversees Latin America and the Caribbean.
Bolt, as Zhang told Latin American and Caribbean journalists, "demonstrated the most amazing" skills and charisma that helped to make the CARICOM exhibition hall "among the most popular" at the Beijing games.
Zhang recalled that when Bolt walked into the Olympics stadium "he got a standing ovation".
However little, or much, the feats of Bolt and the other Jamaican speed merchants on the track in the Bird's Nest may have impacted his career, Xi knows Jamaica beyond athletics.
It was on the list of countries he visited on a five-nation tour of Latin America in 2009 in his role as vice-president. He spoke at the ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of a China-financed convention centre in Montego Bay on the north coast.
Further, when Delroy Chuck, then as Speaker of the Jamaican Parliament visited China, the now opposition politician was hosted by Xi for a private meeting.
"The prospective president has an awareness of Jamaica," said Courtenay Rattray, Jamaica's ambassador in Beijing. "And that can only be looked at as a positive," he said.
That is particularly so in a country that values long, predictable and principled friendships and where personal relationships can matter in bilateral policy considerations.
Jamaica scores on all counts, starting with Michael Manley's decision 40 years ago to establish diplomatic relations with China, quickly adopting a one-China policy.
"That could not been an easy thing for small country like Jamaica, and China has not forgotten Jamaica's action," Rattray said. "They are respectful of the role Jamaica plays in the international community and of its leadership in the Caribbean."
The outcome is reflected, in part, by a slew of a recent investment by Chinese firms in Jamaica, such as the US$600-million highway project by China Harbour Engineering Company and the acquisition of formerly government-owned sugar factories by the Complant group.
Sino-Jamaican relations apart, Xi is assuming China's top political and government posts at a challenging period.
Conventional wisdom in the West is that he was chosen, in part, because of his strong, assertive personality, which is expected to be reflected in foreign policy: standing up to the United States on trade and to Japan on issues such as ownership of the Diaoyu Dao Islands.
focus on economy
At home, though, the issue is largely to be the economy - how to get it to zoom along, how it is to be reformed, and how to deliver benefits to the 1.2 billion Chinese. These are all matters of the agenda of the Communist Party at its congress.
It is not that anything is obviously wrong with China's economy.
With the effects of the 2008 global recession still lingering, most countries would welcome the 7.7 per cent by which China's economy grew during the first nine months of the year, on track for the projected 7.5 per cent expansion in GDP for 2012.
In Beijing, with the onset of winter, fashion on the streets would easily blend with those in any in the world's most fashion-conscious cities. Trendy malls drip with some of the world's top clothing brands.
Indeed, over the past decade, with Hu at the helm of the party, goods and services in the economy have moved at break-neck speed.
For example, a year ago there were 9.86 million private vehicles in China. Today, there are nearly 79 million, while expressways to accommodate these vehicles have increased from just more than 25,000 kilometres to nearly 85,000km.
In 2002, there were around 72,000km of railway lines. Now there are 93,000 km.
Over the same period, the number of Chinese Fortune 500 companies, including CHEC, have jumped from 11 to 69. At the same time, electricity has nearly quadrupled to 477 billion kilowatt hours (kWh), driven in part by the explosion in the country's manufacturing industries and factors such as growth by rural households of modern conveniences like refrigerators.
A decade ago, a fifth of rural families owned fridges; it is now more than six out of 10.
During this period, too, per capita disposable income for urban and rural households have more than tripled, although the gap between the two, in favour of those who live in towns, remain wide.
When Hu took over the leadership of the party and the country in 2002, more than 22 per cent of the Chinese population was 14 and under.
Now, that is down to 16.5 per cent. At the time, those over 65 has risen to 9.1 per cent, from 7.3 per cent 10 years ago.
These issues are clearly not lost on the leadership of the Communist Party and have been clearly placed on the agenda to be dealt by Xi and others, who will join him in the top leadership of the CPC.
In his address to the party congress opening session on Thursday, while insisting on the continued lead role of the state in the Chinese economy, Hu urged support for the "non-public sector" to ensure that "all forms of ownership have equal access to factors of production in accordance with law, compete on a level field and are protected by the law as equals".
He added: "We should develop a multilevel capital market, take ready steps to make interest rates and RMB [the renminbi] exchange rate more market-based and promote the RMB's convertibility under capital accounts, in due course."
Hu also told the party that there was need for "a complete multi-tiered and sustainable system for providing basic social security for both the urban and rural population".
His remarks about the convertibility of the RMB would be particularly welcome in Washington, where Republicans claim that China manipulates its currency to keep its exports cheap at America's expense.
The statements, though, have had a resonance with watchers of the domestic economy, who say that if implemented, it would have significant impact on market intermediation to the benefit of domestic investors.
In the meantime, Rattray, the Jamaican ambassador, says that such debate on China's internal politics won't, at least in the short run, affect relations between the two countries.
"Jamaica-China relations are solid," said Ambassador Rattray. "Mr Xi's prospective presidency can only be seen as an advantage."
But beyond the politics of that relationship, China's support for infrastructure projects, Jamaica should be wooing firms for foreign direct investment, according to the ambassador.
"Jamaica's debt profile limits its ability to borrow," said Rattray. "The aggressive focus should be on FDI. Jamaica's exporters, with specialised products, need to look for niches in Chinese markets."