Editorial: The fateful choices for China’s new leaders

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

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

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power