Challenges Confronting New Chinese Leadership

Just about a week after the re-election of Barack Obama, the eighteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) conducted a transition of power from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping as the country’s next General Secretary of the CPC. An additional change in political power will occur in the spring of 2013 when about seventy percent of the members of the three most important leadership bodies of China – the Politburo Standing Committee, the State Council and the Central Military Commission – will be replaced. What kind of changes should the new leadership under the direction of Xi Jinping pursue in order to successfully maintain China’s rise in the twenty-first century?

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During the National Congress, Xi Jinping talked about the Chinese population’s ‘’… yearn[ing] for better education, stable jobs, more satisfactory income, greater social security, improved medical and healthcare’’.[1] Yet traditionally, Chinese leadership is reluctant to instigate major political reforms since they perceive China to already constitute a model of socioeconomic and political development in the non-Western world. They also fear that any major reforms may negatively impact political unity within the Communist Party and bring the whole edifice crashing down, reminiscent of the reforms Mikhail Gorbachev initiated during the late 1980s in the USSR. In addition, the bureaucracy and powerful vested interests, especially in the huge state sector of the economy, oppose any sort of reform that could affect their privileged positions.

China’s rise to prominence in the twenty-first century will depend on whether Xi Jinping is capable of steering the country toward a more fair and relaxed society in the face of a conservative and obstructive Party. President Xi will need to promote intra-Party democracy (the concept of institutionalised checks and balances within the CPC) for increased political transparency and address China’s economic issues such as the growing income disparities, inflation, a property bubble and the rapid expansion of giant state-owned monopolies at the expense of the private sector.

In the coming decade, the disjunction between the opaque, hermetically sealed one-party system and the country’s rapidly evolving society will pose a significant challenge for Xi Jinping. In the last few years, China’s political reforms have hardly made any progress at all. Conscious of its role as an emerging global power, it is difficult to imagine that China wants to be grouped with a couple of backward and isolated communist states and a few other disreputable authoritarian countries. The Communist Party of China consists of approximately 80 million members and in the absence of any organised opposition, one can hardly expect China to suddenly develop a multiparty system. Therefore, a form of intra-Party democracy characterised by elite competition may well be the most pragmatic way to promote democracy in the country.

Xi Jinping will also need to deal with the economic problems China is confronted with in order to sustain the country’s prominence as one of the world’s largest economies. One issue President Xi will have to address is the growing economic disparity between Chinese citizens. Certain major socioeconomic groups, including farmers, migrants, the urban poor and elderly often find themselves increasingly marginalised as a result of China’s rapid economic growth. On the other hand, the supposedly more privileged groups in society such as entrepreneurs and members of the middle class may also feel insecure because of the recent large-scale outflow of capital on the part of rich entrepreneurs and increased corruption among state officials which has spurred a sense of crisis amongst elites.

China is confronted with countless other challenges, including shortages of natural resources, environmental degradation, the side effects of large-scale urbanisation, the prospect of an ageing society, inadequate healthcare and social welfare, public concerns about food and product safety, tensions between the central and local governments and ethnic conflicts.

We can thus identify that Xi Jinping must address certain major issues in China’s policies in order to sustain the country’s political and economic rise to prominence. Considerable political reforms and economic policy alterations have to be implemented and numerous other policy issues should be addressed.  We can only hope that the new political guard will bring about these necessary changes and live up to its reputation as a rising superpower.

[1] The Guardian, Xi Jinping takes reins of Communist party and Chinese military, 15 November 2012.

Cheng Li, Leadership Transition in the CPC: Promising Progress and Potential Problems, Brookings Institution, August 2012.

Telegraph, Can Xi Jinping bring about the change China needs?, 18 November 2012.

The Guardian, Xi Jinping takes reins of Communist party and Chinese military, 15 November 2012.

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