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

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

General Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station  

General Election 2015: Despite all the seeming cynicism, our political system works

Ian Birrell
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
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living