Editorial: The fateful choices for China’s new leaders

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

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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.

 

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