With the U.S. elections and the [national] congress in China, the two biggest powers on earth are deciding their vision for the future at the same time. Both countries are fighting for the superiority of their systems. In this duel, the question is nothing less than whether a free, democratic form of government is stronger in the end than an authoritarian system with limited freedoms.

The U.S. and China only determine their leaders at the same time every 20 years. In 1992, this parallelism was irrelevant. The U.S. had just won the Cold War, the West was glowing and the end of the story supposedly approached. A young governor from Arkansas was surprisingly elected president because he had understood that people’s wallets were more important to them than the success of the U.S. on the world stage.

In China, a certain Jiang Zemin was continuing the economic easing put in place by Deng Xiaoping, who is now remembered primarily for his suppression of the democratic movement in 1989. The country was closed.

Today, 20 years later, the comparison of leadership between China and the U.S. has greater meaning. History has left its traces: It was merciful to China and less merciful to the U.S. Suddenly, the two governments are looking at each other eye to eye. Under the leadership of these two nearly concurrently-chosen presidents, not just a rivalry, but also a great ideological conflict between them will be decided.

Superficial Images Not to Be Fallen for

Both presidents know that their countries represent a superficial image that others shouldn’t fall for. In the U.S., the deep optimism of 20 years ago has flown away. Too many debts, too many dead soldiers, too much political hate — America finds little joy in the world or in itself. The country is climbing down from the throne of a leading power and losing its luster. That’s how the world views it, at least. But is the picture correct?

China has rediscovered itself two decades after Jiang Zemin: High-speed trains shoot through the country, bicycles have disappeared in the cities, and glittering towers grow into the sky. The country has experienced a growth and prosperity explosion that hardly any other country on earth has seen.

Hundreds of millions of people have escaped poverty. The country has become so powerful that its terrified neighbors seek protection. A giant, a new leading power, has awakened. That’s how the world views it, at least. But is the picture correct?

The historical narrative of rise and fall is as tempting as it is wrong. Whoever proclaims America’s downfall is underestimating the rejuvenatory forces of the country — forces that manifested themselves on Election Day. As brutal as the election campaign was and as polarized as the country is, Election Day gives the U.S. an energy boost every four years.

When Barack Obama assumed power in 2008, he tried to correct the excesses of the Bush years. Likewise four years later, the majority did not decide in favor of this man out of tired resignation. No, they decided to follow a particular course. The majority does not want ideological exaggeration; they do not want economic and political polarization — they want a chance, and they want justice.

So the U.S. once again receives a chance to rewrite the simple story of decline. America doesn’t truly find itself in need, but the situation of the country is still uncomfortable and depressing. The message from Election Day to the politicians is this: Don’t block one another any longer, and work together for the good of the nation. The flaw does not lie in the system; it lies in the political personnel.

As in the U.S., a second truth lies behind the picture of glittering China. The change of power is being carried out under extreme tension. Growth still only stands at 7.4 percent — two percentage points lower than last year and too low to satisfy the population’s hunger for jobs and better living conditions.

Tensions are exploding everywhere: social, ethnic and religious conflicts and conflicts between the authorities and the people. China is experiencing an uncontrollable outbreak of publicity on the Internet, via cell phone, even in the state media. Scientists and opposition members are becoming braver and braver, and even members of the Politburo cadre exert their own form of power in Western newspapers. The struggle is being staged semi-publically, and what is revealed there gives evidence of injustice, corruption and clan rivalries. Doubt exists over the sustainability of the system.

Time for an Inner Revision

It is undisputed that China and the U.S. will be competitors on account of their economic power. Seldom in history have two comparably large powers come to an understanding conducive to peaceful co-existence. The duel has historical meaning, however, because a contest for the right form of government is hidden behind the story of rise and fall.

We can even place it one level higher: China and the U.S. are wrestling to establish their values and prove the superiority of their social systems. It is no less than a question of whether a free, democratic form of government is stronger in the end than an authoritarian system. It is about whether an open society is in a better position for correction and self-improvement than a controlled society with limited freedom.

The concurrent filling of leadership posts has revealed that both nations have reasons for revision. The Chinese system has arrived at a dangerous point. Too many forces are operating against one another and erupting uncontrolled. The party makes a comprehensive claim to power — but to what end?

China Too Has a Choice

Within the party, arguments rage about the degree of opening, about transparency and in the end, about the surrender of power. At the very top of the list is concern over the country’s unity, which is not guaranteed. Separatism along ethnic borders is ever present. Even more dangerous is the festering dissatisfaction moving straight through society, arousing the nagging feeling of great injustice.

America suffers more from ideological fault lines. They are no less dangerous, as they have politically crippled the country for two years now. America will not shatter because of it, but it will lose its power.

Who will win in the end? The world has no interest in either the downfall of the U.S. or the internal collapse in China. But the Chinese system is unquestionably under greater pressure, as it can only react to crisis with repression. As long as the party fails to muster up the courage to make freedom a reality in China, tensions will continue to grow without any outlets for release. In the U.S., the system provides for discharge. America has already taken its freedom. It had the choice.