Editorial: China's new leader must move with the times

Resistance to political reform will be intense, but the status quo is unsustainable

Share
Related Topics

The contrast between the vast public jamboree of Tuesday's US presidential election and the mystery-shrouded Communist Party Congress that began in China yesterday has been widely noted. There is an equally instructive comparison, however, between the leadership handover that will conclude in Beijing next week, and those that went before.

It is as well not to get carried away. China remains opaque, secretive and deeply authoritarian. This week's Congress is a case in point: not only will every meeting that precedes the "election" of the all-important Standing Committee take place behind closed doors; many – if not all – of the decisions have already been made. Amid so much inscrutability, the only certainty is the outcome: Xi Jinping is to be Party leader (and President) and Li Keqiang Party deputy leader (and Premier), replacing Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao respectively.

China has, nonetheless, made huge progress in the decades since Deng Xiaoping embarked on state capitalism in the late 1970s. The nine (or, more likely, seven) members of the Standing Committee who will file out on to the stage next Thursday are far removed from their predecessors. They have not only swapped Mao suits for their Western equivalent, they speak the same language of economic growth and international engagement as their counterparts from Washington to Berlin, albeit with a twist.

So far, the Communist Party has managed to keep control, despite the profound transformation wrought by "socialism with Chinese characteristics". But there are signs of strain. After three decades of stellar growth, China may now be the world's second largest economy, but social divisions – between urban and rural, rich and poor, tradition and modernity – are widening dangerously.

With economic growth slowing, social media testing Beijing's censors to breaking point, and protests erupting over everything from corruption to working conditions to environmental destruction, the ruling elite is struggling to maintain both its hold and its mandate. For all the short-term political mileage to be made from them, both the high-profile defenestration of former Party darling Bo Xilai, and the nationalism stoked by the spat with Tokyo over the Diaoyu islands, speak of instability more than strength.

Much optimism greeted Mr Hu's promotion to the presidency a decade ago. But his reformist talk has borne scant fruit. Now, similar hopes are attached to Mr Xi, with China-watchers poring over every detail of his past career for hints of what is to come. For all the pressure for change, the outgoing President's opening speech at the Congress yesterday was hardly encouraging, stressing adherence to the "basic socialist economic system", and dashing expectations of political change.

It can only be hoped that Mr Xi proves more pragmatic. To ensure the "soft landing" the economy so desperately needs, he must push on with liberalising measures, not least a revaluation of the renminbi. To bind together China's fracturing society, he must do more than pay lip service to tackling corruption. To accommodate China's fast-expanding, techno-literate and increasingly feisty middle class, he must take real steps towards greater political openness, not least unwinding the Party's grip on the judiciary. Opposition will be intense, but the status quo is unsustainable.

As China has slowly extricated itself from the straitjacket imposed by Mao, the political system he created has shown a remarkable ability to reinvent itself. It must continue to do so. There is a proverb attributed to Confucius: "The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm". Mr Xi and his colleagues would do well to take heed, for a storm is surely on its way.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
 

If Renee Zellweger wants to look different, who are we to question it?

Boyd Tonkin
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker