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

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

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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.

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