TWO elections were staged this week.

One depended on billions of dollars and the belief, illusory for many, that every vote counts. Another rested on the consent of billions and the certainty that the right to weigh fake ballots is the only franchise worth a damn. In both cases there was a lot of talk about democracy.

If you had to define modern history in a tie-break 20-words-or-fewer, you might come up with a pair of oddly parallel statements. Both arise from an Enlightenment age that is still misunderstood and misrepresented. One says, "We, the People". The other is a demand: "Workers of the world, unite". What's the difference?

Loading article content

In essence, in logic, nothing at all. An American system venerates government of, by and for the people. It says that each human was created equal, with an equal voice. Offensive as the notion sounds to the zany conservatives of the United States, why is that different from socialism?

You could as well ask why the Jeffersonian ideal doesn't appeal to followers of Marx and Engels, or even to the managerial men in suits who purport to represent Communism in China. They just did their ritual version of musical chairs. New, unblinking faces are in; old, stern and unchanging visages are out. They don't even crack a smile when they say that such is the people's choice.

Hu Jintao has stepped down as president, the better to enjoy the love of common folk and the rewards of service. He is – and how did this happen? – at least as rich as Mitt Romney. The Politburo, those heirs of the Long March, now have billionaires and multi-millionaires among them. They despise the decadent west. But not to the alarm, most of the time, of their accountants.

These Communists are engaged on an experiment. So much is cliche. You can have all that glisters, they tell the people, save democracy, or Communism, or even the self-indulgence of human rights. We will keep you prosperous. We might even give you a wide-screen HD version of fast-food happiness. In return, you must never revisit the Chairman's rhetoric, least of all where the R word – revolution – is concerned.

Old Beijing watchers make a sport of small differences. Take my one-way bet: on Thursday, November 15, one Xi Jinping will emerge in Great Hall of the People as the latest capo – I mean general secretary of the Communist Party of China – and the usual tale will unfold. Who is he, then? Does it even matter?

Is he a "hardliner", or a "reformer"? Does he want to know, in the immortal words of Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles, why he didn't get a harrumph from the latest half dozen self-selected blanks on the party's standing committee? And what does anyone, least of all "the People", propose to do about a self-evident perversion of the Marxian ideal?

The west long ago sold its Enlightenment rhetoric for cheap goods, deficit funding, and company buy-outs. Even the mention of human rights is an empty ritual. Mr Romney, in his election campaign, meanwhile promised to assault China as a currency manipulator. You could have heard the sniggering from here to the Great Wall. Washington can no longer tell Beijing what it must and must not do. Too many US Treasury bonds are in play.

But that sticky embrace is also a problem for Mao's grandchildren. They can only keep the people happy with jobs turning out iPhones, with jobs that depend – history likes its ironies – on keeping America afloat. If the affectless suits in Beijing falter, if America stumbles, the unemployed Chinese proletariat might do something savage. They might demand their democratic rights.

The experiment attempted by the Chinese CP says that those are superfluous. The people are held in actual contempt. Hu Jintao has made the odd noise over official corruption – or wholesale theft – but his cabal cannot afford to confront the facts. They promised jobs, homes, TVs and education in exchange for a truce over liberty. If the jobs fade away and liberty is still denied, a gargantuan explosion follows. Some comrades could meet sticky ends. A question: would America welcome the fact?

Chinese GDP growth is not what it was. Personally, I never believed the CP-certified numbers to begin with. China's new wealth, equally, has long seemed like an exercise in illusion and placation. The money has not trickled down, or answered the deep-seated problems of an economy that pretends to have both a command structure and a profit motive. Russia submitted to mafia oligarchy in the face of these contradictions.

America had the other of the week's mock elections. It just about saw off another putsch from the rich folk. The coincidence between one poll and another showed us, nevertheless, how this 21st century is liable to look. It will involve neither socialism nor the American alternative. It will not trouble scholars of democracy. Two huge economic interests are at odds and the euro is a mere detail. Best buckle up.

The Chinese picked a fight recently with Japan. Ostensibly, this had to do with a couple of islands. One actual result was a big hole in Nissan's profits. The second has seen the Japanese defence minister, Satoshi Morimoto, calling for new "guidelines" for his country's military co-operation with the US. Two attempts at crony capitalism are failing simultaneously, and neither superpower is happy. In neither case, however, do "the people" have a say in the matter.

At bottom, China offers a challenge that is almost philosophical. America and its supporters want to argue that the denial of liberty to common folk cannot be long sustained. In Beijing, they ask for evidence. Then they want to know about liberty, American style, and the spectacle of two interest groups spending billions just to fight a turf war in which, as ever, the poor get screwed.

The Chinese have a point; the Americans have a point. The tricky detail for the rest of us is that "None of the above" will not be on the ballot paper in the decade to come. There will not be a ballot paper. There will be, chances are, a Chinese company with an anonymous name, run by the Politburo, buying up your local economy. It should make a change from the Yanks, if that helps.

The latest generation of Chinese party hacks will bring something into focus. Mr Romney almost did the same. Does it really matter to common folk if a few liberties go astray when jobs, decent housing, food on the table and electronic toys are guaranteed? How free do you want to be if freedom means poverty? Are you free if you fail even to ask the question, or care about the answer?

Neither Marx nor Jefferson envisaged this. They meant what they said about liberty, about perfectibility, and about the rights of humankind. No matter: democracy globally is in a fix. The dilemmas are profound. Pace Reagan, China might have been the last best hope for mankind. Instead, those billions are entrapped by jumped-up local under-managers on the take who wouldn't know dignity if it bit them on their plump legs.

As well it might, soon enough. As well, over and over, it must.