The challenge ahead
UNLIKE the cliffhanger US elections on Nov 6, the leadership change in China this week was hardly an exercise in suspense — or democracy.
Xi Jinping’s anointment as the new leader of the Communist Party of China and president of the world’s most populous country as of March 2013 had been long expected. Similarly Li Keqiang has also been in line to take over as China’s premier.
The lack of surprise, however, does not make the latest developments in Beijing any less momentous. Even though the names of both the next president and prime minister have been known for years, the size, composition, and priorities of the team — there are no women in the top team — who will be leading China for the next decade require careful study.
After all, what happens in China matters to the rest of the world. Years of rampant economic growth has turned China into one of the world’s emerging political, economic, military and cultural powers.
But with newfound prosperity have come problems. These include growing inequality between the rich and poor, corruption, and anger over a lack of services like healthcare.
China is the second-largest economy in the world. Over the last three decades, China’s rise, its success in delivering growth and development to millions of poor people and its increased confidence in global affairs has mesmerised a watching world. The future is more challenging, however. The economic model that delivered 30 years of double-digit growth is running out of steam and the country’s next leaders face tough choices to keep incomes rising.
The cost of inaction could be high. The World Bank says without change, annual growth could sink to five per cent by 2015 — dangerously low by Chinese standards. Domestic challenges facing the new leaders include a slowing economy, a growing middle class and increasing demands for political reform.
Yawning wealth disparities cause increasing public resentment. China has a huge pollution problem. Corruption is a major sore.
While individual liberties have greatly expanded, anybody advocating competitive democracy outside the one-party system is likely to end up in jail. The political straitjacket imposed since the Communist Party won power in 1949 is at odds with a society connected by social media.
China’s new leadership will also have to contend with an increasingly fraught relationship with the US and its Asian neighbours.
The Obama administration has been bringing more cases against China through the WTO, charging China with unfair trade practices.
In Asia, there’s a growing level of concern about China’s rise and its increased assertiveness in defending territorial claims in the South China Seas. In the East China Sea, China and Japan both claim ownership of the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, which are currently controlled by Japan. Chinese surveillance ships have been seen sailing in the waters around the islands.
Significantly, the team at the helm of Chinese decision-making has been reduced from nine to seven in an effort to make collective decision-making less contentious and more efficient. The general feeling is that the new leaders are a conservative group likely to favour cautious economic reforms rather than radical policy change. Their average age, after all, is 63.4 years.
Most notably, two candidates with strong reform credentials — Guangdong party boss Wang Yang and party organisation head Li Yuanchao — were not promoted to the top team, along with the sole woman candidate Liu Yandong.
Still, expect a change in leadership style. Mr Xi is widely believed to be more of a ‘people’s man’ than his predecessor Hu Jintao who has been criticised for inaction and relying too much on empty slogans. In his first public remarks after his appointment, Mr Xi focused on the new leadership’s responsibility for the Chinese nation and the people, saying: “It is the people who have created history, and it is the people who are true heroes. The people are the source of our strength.”
“Our party faces many severe challenges and there are many pressing problems within the party that need to be resolved, particularly corruption, being divorced from the people, going through formalities and bureaucratism,” said Mr Xi.
In his brief speech, Mr Xi vowed to address the Chinese people’s “desire for a happy life” by providing “better education, more stable jobs, more income, greater social security, better medical and healthcare, improved housing conditions and a better environment”.
Of the seven men who made it to the top of the party, four of them, including Mr Xi, are ‘princelings’ or children of former senior party leaders — an extraordinary fact for a supposedly egalitarian party that rejects hereditary rule and claims to promote on merit alone.
Given the immense challenges facing them, China’s new leaders are likely to spend their time, energy and money on addressing internal challenges and meeting public expectations. Questions likely to dominate their agenda include meeting the aspirations of China’s growing middle class, responding to public pressure as regards quality-of-life improvements such as a cleaner environment, higher food-safety standards, water security, and social protection. China will need outside help in meeting the diverse demands of the country’s ‘urban billion’.
Like it or not, however, China will soon also have to tackle demands for political reform and openness. The world will also be watching carefully to see how China’s new leaders respond to international criticism of Beijing’s human rights record.
China has helped millions to climb out of poverty. Can its leaders now open the doors to political reform and transformation?
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.