Chinese people probably enjoy far greater freedoms now than at any time since the 1949 revolution that brought the Communist Party to power. This is largely due to the opening-up of the country since 1979, and the new freedoms afforded by the internet.
At the same time China is an authoritarian state that does not tolerate dissent – Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo is in prison and activists live with constant harassment. So will Mr Xi be a reformer, or will civil liberties suffer under his rule? “Xi has every reason to be in control, as far as you can in such an enmeshed system. He’s been given the full suite of power props,” said Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
While everyone speaks of his great personal charm, and his recent anti-corruption campaign has proven popular, there is no reason to believe that he will do much to introduce liberal reforms.
The Communist Party says that raising living standards is its chief priority, and hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty. However, the majority has not been lifted as high as the rich in cities like Shanghai Beijing or Guangzhou. Mr Xi has made some changes, such as streamlining the media censorship process.
But his focus will be on retaining the powerful role of the Communist Party in Chinese society, and to do this, he has promised to do more to improve quality of life for China’s increasingly prosperous society, and narrowing the gap between rich and poor.
Even if he wanted to, Mr Xi cannot ignore China’s huge pollution problems. The sight of thousands of dead pigs floating in the Huangpu river in recent days has sparked a public outcry, and air pollution is at such a level that urban Chinese are forced to wear face masks for much of the year.
China has now built 87,000 dams (many have caused terrible problems). By 2020, the volume of urban rubbish in China is expected to reach 400m tonnes, equivalent to the figure for the entire world in 1997. In 2006, the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian discharged nearly 8.3 billion tonnes of sewage into the ocean, without treatment, a 60 per cent increase from 2001.
The astounding figures go on and on. During the first quarter of this century, half of all the world’s new buildings will be erected in China, and 50,000 of them will be skyscrapers, equivalent to 10 New Yorks; and while this is happening, China will be producing 60 billion pairs of wooden chopsticks every year.
Last year, Beijing started to release data on emissions, and the recent “Airmaggedon” has seen Party officials attempt to raise public awareness about smog still further. The concrete steps include capping the rise in the amount of coal used to make energy by 2015, while annual energy consumption growth will be set at 4.3 per cent by 2015, slowing from 6.6 per cent between 2006 and 2010, according to an energy plan.
Clifford Coonan and Michael McCarthy
The conventional wisdom is that China’s leaders successfully managed to steer the economy away from a “hard landing” last year. The annual growth rate dipped at one point to the lowest level since the final 2008 global financial crash. But the last thing the authorities wanted to do was to upset the smooth handover of power to the new generational cohort led by Xi Jinping so they stimulated growth by easing bank lending. It worked. Growth rebounded by the end of last year.
In the short term, this return to strong expansion looks like good news for China. A fast expanding economy in 2013 will continue to pull millions more of rural Chinese out of poverty.
Last year’s slowdown was a consequence of curbs on property lending and ownership imposed by Beijing in 2010 and 2011. Major cities are full of so-called empty “investment properties”. Moreover, the whole economy is lopsided, heavily reliant on construction and investment for expansion.
To that combustible mix, add a potential fiscal crisis. State-owned banks are exposed to over-extended construction companies. These lenders would probably have to be bailed out if they failed. So the question is: did China avoid a hard landing last year? Or did it just postpone the comedown – ensuring it will be all the more painful when it arrives?
One calculation underlies the foreign policy of the ever more assertive China: will Mr Xi seek confrontation or co-operation with the US, whose military reach makes it the de facto protector of China’s increasingly nervous neighbours in East Asia?
During a visit to the US last year, as Vice-President, Mr Xi called for a “new type of relationship between major countries”, built on respect for each other’s “core interests and major concerns” – an unmistakeable demand for Washington to pay China its due. But that implicitly calls into question the role of the US as ultimate guarantor of the security of China’s two largest regional rivals, Japan and South Korea, at a time when tensions are growing on several fronts. These include US complaints about Chinese mercantilism and currency manipulation and accusations of cyberwarfare, as well as the American belief that, on major issues like Iran and Syria, China is not pulling its weight. In Washington, talk is no longer of partnership with China but of “containment”.
In this increasingly suspicious atmosphere, China is less likely than ever to pull the rug from under North Korea, despite its own irritation over the recent nuclear test. For Mr Xi, only one thing would be worse than an imploding state on its north-eastern border. That is the state’s probable replacement: a unified and staunchly pro-US Korea, with 35,000 American troops on its soil.