The question appeared to stun Yu Rui, as though he'd never considered it before: Who would he vote for if China asked its citizens who the next president should be?
His first reaction was to laugh. Then the 45-year-old scientist started nervously looking around him. Other Beijingers brushed by on the busy sidewalk, heading to and from a nearby subway station. Several closed-circuit television cameras hung on nearby buildings and streetlamps. "I don't know how to answer this," Mr. Yu finally said with an apologetic smile.
Mr. Yu isn't apathetic. He said he was paying close attention to the Communist Party meetings taking place in the nearby Great Hall of the People, following the news each night for clues about who will next lead this massive country.
Senior members of the Communist Party are secluded this week in the ornate Great Hall, wrestling behind closed doors over the shape of the country's new leadership pyramid. All that's known for certain at this point is that Xi Jinping – a man few outside the party conclave know anything about – will on Thursday become paramount leader of this rising superpower, shaping the destiny of this country and tinkering with the world order.
On Wednesday, the 2,268 congress delegates will approve a new 350-member Central Committee of the Communist Party. The following day, the Central Committee will name a 25-person Politburo and the supreme Standing Committee of the Politburo, expected to be made up of seven to nine men.
"In the future, it would be good if the ruling party provided more space for the ordinary people [to have] more freedom of thought," Mr. Yu said. "But [China's one-party] system is a reality for now. In the short term, it's not very realistic for us to adopt Western-style direct elections. China is such a big country, and people's level of education varies so widely."
Who would you vote for? It's a question that reporters and pollsters would ask in any other country that was selecting new leaders. But in China, the question remains so unusual that just saying the words out loud makes people nervous.
Do ordinary Chinese support Mr. Xi? It's hard to say for sure. In an afternoon of unscientific polling conducted on the streets of Beijing, The Globe and Mail heard only two types of answers: either optimism over the new leader, or nervous non-answers akin to Mr. Yu's. Of course, the Communist Party's firm control over the media plays a large role in that.
"If I had to choose someone to be our president, I'd choose someone I'm familiar with," said Jensen Wang, a 19-year-old student at the Communication University of China. "Everyone knows about Xi Jinping. It's hard to for me to form an opinion on others."
Posting the same question online, via a Chinese language online poll, drew a broader and more interesting range of responses, with many expressing their support for either jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo or dissident artist Ai Weiwei.
In addition to Mr. Liu and Mr. Ai, The Globe and Mail put four Communist Party leaders on its nine-name Twitter "ballot": Mr. Xi; the incumbent President Hu Jintao (who will remain i as president until early next year); Premier Wen Jiabao, who is also due to step aside in the spring; and Wang Yang, the reform-minded governor of Guangdong province.
Mr. Liu, who has nine years remaining on an 11-year jail sentence for "inciting subversion" – a charge related to his drafting of a pro-democracy manifesto – was the most popular of The Globe's proposed candidates, drawing about 40 per cent of the hundreds of votes cast, followed by Mr. Ai, with about 30 per cent. Mr. Xi and Mr. Wang were in a race for third place, well behind the two dissidents.
Some said they wouldn't cast a ballot before they could hear the proposed candidates explain their policy platforms in a debate. "First, they should explain what plans they have … what is their five-year plan, their stance on the nation's diplomatic policy, the economic debate, medical insurance, standards of living, human rights, justice, legislative independence, corruption issues. You need to give me a reason why I should vote for you," one Twitter user wrote in Chinese.
On the streets of Beijing, however, such ideas remain fanciful, at best. "This is not for us to choose," scolded Wang Li, a 57-year-old engineer, when asked for whom she would cast her vote if given the chance. "Whomever the leaders decide on, we support it."
Others said they were watching the news of the Communist Party congress, but unsure how it would affect their lives. "I really don't know much about Xi Jinping," smiled Hao Defu, a 43-year-old construction worker. "Whoever the next president is, it's all the same to us."
Fallen Communist Party star Bo Xilai, once one of the most popular politicians in China, was put on the ballot as a test of his lingering support. Two non-native politicians were also offered as choices: U.S. President Barack Obama received multiple nominations, as did Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.
Several users challenged the whole premise of the exercise. "By suggesting the name of Bo [Xilai], you ignore the laws of China," wrote one Twitter user, whose Twitter profile identified him as living in Montreal. Mr. Bo was recently expelled from the Communist Party and while not yet been formally charged, is expected to be tried on accusations of massive corruption and abuse of power, as well as involvement in covering up a murder.