Editorial: The fateful choices for China’s new leaders

If local unrest swells into national protest, will they choose liberalisation or repression

Share
Related Topics

 

With the confirmation at China’s National People’s Congress this week of Xi Jinping as state President, and Li Keqiang as Prime Minister, Beijing’s 10-yearly leadership change is essentially complete. Any ructions caused by the disgrace of the aspiring Politburo member Bo Xilai have been smoothed over, as has any friction between the institutions of the ruling Communist Party and those of the state.

Like their predecessors, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, Xi and Li now hold the top two jobs in both party and state apparatus. Any idea that China might by now have evolved something akin to a Western system of checks and balances, in the same way as it has accommodated itself to Western business ways, can be forgotten. China has so far modernised without much democratising – at least as we would define the term.

The 64,000 yuan question is whether such a model, of which variants can be found around Asia, is sustainable as China’s living standards continue to rise, or whether trouble of an Arab Spring or even Tiananmen Square variety might lie ahead. Bo Xilai’s challenge, if he made one, was of a leftist, not a liberal complexion. But there may come a time when the pace of improvement disappoints, and the unofficial deal – growing prosperity in return for political quiescence – starts to pall. Then, all bets for a predictable future could be off.

But even now, as the old guard that presided over a decade of impressive growth and relative stability bows out, the outlines can be discerned of some very different scenarios for China. Where Beijing’s last leaders could mostly content themselves with providing more of the same, its new leaders may not have that luxury. They face sharp forks in the road, even as they are called upon to speed growth and maintain stability, too. The next decade will hold more perils than the last.

At home, China faces two demographic time bombs, as the malign effects of the one-child policy make themselves felt. The unnatural gender ratio amounts to a human experiment of mass proportions; the one-child policy is also tipping China straight from being a young country into an ageing one, with all the social and cost implications this entails.

The gulf between rich and poor may no longer be widening, but it is unclear how far the last leadership made that happen and how far it was an effect of slowing growth and proliferating labour unrest. China’s new leaders will have to decide how far inequality can be a healthy spur to development and how far it fuels dangerous resentment. They will also have to judge how far they will go to excise the canker of corruption.

Soaring demand for housing and energy, illegal land grabs and the perilously low quality of much rapidly developed infrastructure could all derail Beijing’s agenda in the next decade. And if local unrest threatens to swell into national protest, will the new leaders – with their knowledge of abroad and their PhDs – dare to risk liberalisation rather than repression?

Abroad, China managed for much of the past decade to pursue a peaceful rise. Recent months, though, have shown both a more aggressive China – an embryonic superpower scrapping for Pacific islands and Indian Ocean shipping lanes – and a more collegiate China, joining UN efforts to curb North Korea. The time will come when Beijing has to decide which of these faces it wants to represent its future. With 1.3 billion people, an economy soon to become the world’s largest and an extensive military modernisation programme, enormous responsibility rests on the shoulders of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang.

 

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia  

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Oliver Poole
Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup