Friday, November 30, 2012

2012 Presidential (Non)-Elections: China

This is the tenth in a series of posts on the numerous presidential elections this year. The  first nine posts were on the elections in TaiwanRussiaSenegalFranceEgyptParaguay (not technically an election), Mexico, Venezuela, and the U.S.

The appointment of Xi Jinping as the next president of China has received fairly muted reactions, as in no one side (at least outside of China) is strongly for or against him. The ruling Communist Party of China will continue in power.

The most interesting thing about this appointment is directly related to language and translation. This appointment (which is not finalized until January) is a non-election, just like the ascension of Paraguay's vice president to the presidency earlier this year, but it is different in that it has nothing to do with elections or democratic processes, given that it is a party appointment.

In fact, and here is the linguistic issue, the "president" of China should perhaps not even be called that. I have almost no knowledge of Chinese, but I do know that the word used for the chairman of the CPC is zhǔxí (主席). Translated literally, this means "main seat" or "head seat" (which I know because the same characters exist in Japanese). In other words, the chairman, not the president (in the normal political sense of the word).

This is the word the Chinese have used for their leader ever since Mao entered the scene. The switch in the English translation from "chairman" to "president" is more recent, but in fact "prime minister" or, simply, "chairman" makes a lot more sense. Though no ideological purpose is necessarily behind the change, it certainly allows for misunderstanding.

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